February 24, 2013 / 3:50 PM / in 5 years

New Bulgarian patriarch enthroned by tarnished Orthodox Church

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria’s new Orthodox patriarch was enthroned in a mass in Sofia on Sunday that leaves the soft-spoken theologian the task of restoring the reputation of a church hurt by links to businessmen and communist secret police.

Neofit, Bishop of Rousse, took over the 1,100-year old church, which survived centuries of Turkish domination and decades of communism, just as Bulgaria heads for early elections by May after the government resigned on Wednesday during protests over the cost of living and corruption.

Protesters in Sofia kept a promise to stay away from the capital’s main cathedral, St. Alexander Nevski, so as not to interfere with the ceremonial mass of inauguration.

About 80 percent of Bulgarians say they are Orthodox Christians - the mainstream religion also in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Greece, Romania and Serbia, but only few see churchgoing as important to their lives, recent surveys show.

Trust in the Orthodox Church was shaken after a history commission showed in January 2012 that 11 of its 15 bishops collaborated with the former communist era secret police.

Neofit, born Simeon Dimitrov, also had a file with the much feared Darzhavna Sigurnost, but while his 16-page entry contained information about him, it preserved no reports made by him to the police.

The election by a church council of the bespectacled Neofit, 67, known for theological learning, humble demeanour and exquisite singing, was welcomed by believers and analysts who see him as a worthy successor to Patriarch Maxim who died in November aged 98.

“Neofit will be a patriarch who will not shame Bulgarians. He will restore the spiritual dignity of the Church,” said political analyst Nikolai Mihailov.

The luxurious lifestyle of some bishops has fed disillusionment with the church, and the restoration of the little known church title of archon -- given to businessmen often after hefty donations - has also stirred disapproval.

Neofit graduated from the Theological Academy in Sofia in 1971 and specialized in Moscow for two years. He took the name Neofit and was sworn in as a monk in the Troyan Monastery by late Patriarch Maxim in 1975.

He taught church singing at Sofia’s Theological Academy, led its choir and was its rector before becoming a bishop in 1994.

Neofit’s inauguration coincided with the last Sunday address by Pope Benedict, leader of millions of Catholic Christians, before his resignation.

Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Jason Webb

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