Reaching the Nations

Bulgaria

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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BulgariaGeography

Area: 110,879 square km.  Located in Southeastern Europe, Bulgaria borders Romania, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and the Black Sea.  The Danube River forms the Romanian border.  Mountains cover most areas, with some lowlands and plains in northern and southeastern areas.  The climate is temperate with cold, wet winters and dry, hot summers.  Earthquakes and landslides are natural hazards.  Environmental issues include air and water pollution, deforestation, and soil contamination.  Bulgaria is divided into 28 administrative provinces.

 

Population: 7,204,678 (July 2009)       

Annual Growth Rate: -0.79% (2009)    

Fertility Rate: 1.41 children born per woman (2009)   

Life Expectancy: 69.48 male, 76.91 female (2009)

 

Peoples

Bulgarian: 83.9%

Turk: 9.4%

Roma: 4.7%

Other: 2%

 

Bulgarians constitute the largest ethnic group and populate most areas.  Turks are concentrated along the Greek and Turkish borders.  Bulgaria has the highest percentage of Roma of any European nation.[1]  Roma live throughout the country, with the highest concentrations in Sliven and the northwest.  Other ethnic groups include Macedonians, Armenians, Tatars, and Circassians.  Bulgaria has the second fastest shrinking population in the world after Montenegro due to low birth rates and emigration. 

 

Languages: Bulgarian (84.5%), Turkish (9.6%), Roma (4.1%), other and unspecified (1.8%).  Bulgarian is the official language and only language with over one million speakers (6.08 million).  

Literacy: 98.2% (2001)

 

History

Various ancient peoples, including the Thracians, Macedonians, Greeks, and Romans ruled the region in antiquity.  Modern-day Bulgarians trace their roots to the Turkic Bulgars, which settled Bulgaria from Central Asia.  Intermixing with the indigenous Slavic tribes was followed by the establishment of the first Bulgarian nation in the late 600s.  The Byzantine Empire exerted influence in the region, which came under Ottoman control in the 14th century.  In 1878, northern Bulgaria gained autonomy and the nation as a whole achieved independence in 1908 from the Ottoman Empire.  Both world wars took a heavy toll on Bulgaria, which became a communist nation in 1946.  In 1990, communist rule came to an end with democratic elections.  Rapid change to a free-market economy occurred in the 1990s and 2000s.  Bulgaria has become a member of NATO and the European Union in the past decade.

 

Culture 

Bulgaria boasts a rich history of art and ancient artifacts from the various civilizations which ruled the region.  The Cyrillic alphabet traces its origins to Bulgaria during the ninth century AD and is in use in modified forms throughout much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.  A legacy of athletics and competitive sports includes wrestling, weight-lifting, volleyball, football, and tennis.  Bulgaria produces fine wines which are consumed worldwide.  Cuisine shares much in common with other nations in the Balkans and Southeast Europe.  Folk music is played with instruments common in the region.  Bulgaria has one of the highest cigarette consumption rates, whereas alcohol consumption rates are similar to the worldwide average.   

 

Economy

GDP per capita: $12,600 (2009) [27.2% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.840

Corruption Index: 3.8

Bulgaria has taken significant steps towards becoming a free-market economy and integrating with Europe as a whole.  Services account for 56% of the workforce and 64% of the GDP.  Industry employs 36% of the workforce and produces 28% of the GDP.  Primary industries include electricity, gas, water, food products, and mining.  Vegetables, fruit, tobacco, and wine are major agricultural products.  Primary trade partners include Germany, Russia, Greece, and Turkey.  Bulgaria’s strategic geographic location provides abundant trade opportunities and carries importance as a link between Asia and Europe. 

 

Corruption ranks among the highest in the European Union.  Organized crime and accusations of corruption among public officials continue to deter economic growth and stability. 

 

Faiths

Christian: 83.8%

Muslim: 12.2%

Other: 4%

 

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Bulgarian Orthodox  6,460,000

Evangelical  150,000

Catholic  43,811

Armenian Apostolic  30,000

Seventh-Day Adventists  7,632  118

Latter-Day Saints  2,151  14

Jehovah’s Witnesses   1,707  25

 

Religion

Most Bulgarians are Orthodox Christians, approximately half of whom are religiously active.  Catholics are concentrated in Plovdiv and have high rates of church participation with as many as 90% attending worship services regularly.  Muslims are primarily ethnic Turks found in areas bordering Greece and Turkey.  Areas with the highest percentages of Roma tend to have the greatest percentages of Protestants nationwide.[2]

 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The constitution protects religious freedom which is typically upheld by the government for registered religious groups.  Due to ambiguities in the 2002 Denominations Act, unregistered religious groups may experience some harassment and differing treatment based on location.  The government recognizes Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the traditional religion.  Orthodox Christian holidays are national holidays and the government respects the religious holidays of other religious groups.  Political parties are not allowed to have religious ties.  Several churches report inconsistencies in government carrying out the law.  For instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints experienced increased persecution and harassment in the late 2000s following a letter distributed to schools in Burgas by the local government warning to beware of the dangers of these non-traditional religious groups.[3] 

 

Largest Cities

Urban: 71%

Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Burgas, Ruse, Stara Zagora, Pleven, Sliven, Dobrich, Shumen.

 

All 10 of the largest cities have a congregation.  37% of the national population lives in the 10 largest cities. 

 

LDS History

The first district was organized in 1982 for the few members who lived in the country during the communist era.  Bulgaria belonged to the Austria Vienna East Mission in the late 1980s prior to the start of missionary work.  Elder Russell M. Nelson visited Bulgaria in 1990 and dedicated the land for missionary work.[4]  In September 1990, the first missionaries to serve in Bulgaria consisted of two couples and two sister missionaries.  The Bulgaria Sofia Mission was organized in 1991 with Kiril P. Kiriakov – a native Bulgarian living in the United States – called as mission president.[5]  Seminary and institute began in 1994.  By 1999, convert baptisms among relatives of Church members lead to the first known instance of a four-generation Bulgarian LDS member family being established.[6]  In 2000, Bulgaria became part of the Europe East Area.[7]  In addition to Bulgaria, the Bulgaria Sofia Mission also administered Serbia for a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s before mission administration forSerbia was transferred to the Slovenia Ljubljana Mission.  In 2007, the mission president met with Bulgarian Councilor of Religious Affairs to discuss the Church’s activities.[8]

 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 2,151 (2009)

In May 1991, there were about 50 members living primarily in Sofia.[9]  During the early 1990s, membership grew rapidly to 700 by the mid-1990s.  Membership totaled 1,100 in late 1997.  The Church began to experience greater membership growth outside the largest cities.  For instance, there were 56 members in the Pazardjik Branch by 1999.[10]  By year-end 2000, there were 1,587 members nationwide.

 

Annual membership growth rates slowed dramatically in the 2000s from over nine percent in 2001 and 2002 to less than 1.5% for years between 2006 and 2009.  Membership totaled 2,022 in 2004 and 2,115 in 2006.  In 2008, membership decreased by 18.  High emigration rates have reduced Church membership, as by 2000 about half of Bulgarians who joined the Church had emigrated from Bulgaria. 

 

Congregational Growth

Branches: 14 Groups: 6?

During the early 1990s, six branches were organized in Sofia.  The first branch in Plovdiv was organized in 1992 and in the mid-1990s branches were created in Blagoevgrad, Burgas, Dobrich, Ruse, Shumen, Varna, and Veliko Turnovo.[11] 

 

In 2000, there were 14 branches.  The number of branches increased to 19 in 2002 and to 21 in 2006.  Additional cities received their first branches, including Pleven, Stara Zagora, Khaskovo, Pazardzhik, Pernik, Sliven, and Yambol. 

 

The number of branches declined to 20 in 2008.  In the first half of 2010 six branches in Dobrich, Khaskovo, Pernik, Shumen, Veliko Turnovo, and Yambol were discontinued and became groups.  The Area Presidency discontinued branches with fewer than 15 people attending church weekly and advised the mission to pull missionaries from these cities due to their poor productivity. 

 

Activity and Retention

Quick baptism tactics and unsustainable membership growth in the early 1990s led to inactivity issues.  Several cities had fewer than 15% of total membership actively attending church.  President Gary Stephens served as the mission president of the Bulgaria Sofia Mission between 1997 and 2000 and greatly improved member activity while continuing convert baptisms and improving retention.  Active Bulgarian membership accounted for as many as 65% of membership in 2000, achieving one of the highest LDS activity rates worldwide.

 

Over 100 youth attended the first youth conference in 1999.[12]  In recent years, youth and single adult conference have been held regularly.[13]  71 were enrolled in seminary or institute during the 2008-2009 school year.  In 2005, over 700 attended a presentation on the Church to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith in Sofia.[14]  100 attended a conference for six branches in eastern Bulgaria commemorating the establishment of religious freedom in Bulgaria in 2006.[15]  In 2010, most branches appear to have between 30 and 60 active members.  The percentage of active members appears to have decreased through the rest of the 2000s, and today is estimated at around 800, or 40%.

 

Small congregations with few active members are not concentrated in one area of Bulgaria.  30 attended church meetings in Sliven in late 2009.  In early 2010, approximately 30 members attend church weekly in Mladost Branch in Sofia.  Pleven once had around 30 active members, but in late 2008 had less than 10.  In late 2008, Pernik was one of the smallest branches with four active members and Yambol had fewer than 10 attending church meetings.

 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Bulgarian, Turkish

All LDS scriptures are available in Bulgarian.  Only the Book of Mormon has been translated into Turkish.  Many unit, temple, Priesthood, Relief Society, Sunday School, young women, primary, missionary, and family history materials are available in Bulgarian and Turkish.  Several CES manuals are available in Bulgarian.  The Liahona has four Bulgarian issues a year.   

 

Meetinghouses

The Church completed the first church-built meetinghouse in Bulgaria in 2000 in Sofia.  The new meetinghouse brought increased media and government exposure to the Church.[16]  Most congregations meet in rented spaces or renovated buildings.

 

Humanitarian and Development Work

In 1993, the Church sent many doctors and physicians to Bulgaria to train medical personnel. The Church also provided educational training to school administrators.  Donations to schools for the mentally handicapped occurred the same year.[17]  Church members started a foundation named One Heart which donated nutritious foods to Bulgarian orphanages in 2003.[18]  In 2007, the Church donated equipment to a hospital in Plovdiv used to diagnose brain and cranial conditions.[19] 

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

 

Religious Freedom

The Church is registered with the government, but experiences regional restrictions and some persecution.  Major improvements in public relations occurred in the late 1990s.  The media has produced many negative new stories about the Church in recent years.  An Orthodox priest in Burgas requested the government to expel two LDS missionaries who he accused of interrupting an Orthodox Church service by entering and distributing religious literature.  Missionaries declared that they were invited to attend the service and left when they realized they were unwelcomed.  The government did not take any action, but the incident resulted in many negative media reports internationally.[20] 

 

In the late 2000s, missionaries were prohibited from proselytism and distributing literature in Ruse and Varna.  The Church complained to the national government concerning harsh treatment of missionaries in Pleven and Plovdiv.  A letter was received from the government reinforcing its obligation to protect religious freedom, but did not address the specific situation.  Acts of vandalism occurred at some LDS meeting houses.  In June 2009, LDS missionaries were beaten by a group of youth and the police investigated the incident.[21]  The Church has attempted to address issues regarding religious freedom and the Church’s right to proselyte by developing positive relations with local and national government through visitations and education about the Church.  In 2007, humanitarian missionaries met with the mayor of central Sofia and provided information about the Church and its operations in Bulgaria.[22]

 

Cultural Issues

The Church has seen some success in growing membership over the past two decades despite the strong historical tradition of Orthodox Christianity for centuries and communist rule for four decades.  Increased secularism resulting from recent economic reforms may be partially responsible for low increases in membership over the past several years.  Many Orthodox Christians hold negative views and misconceptions of the Church, which have been perpetuated by local government and the media.  Bulgarians tend to be more religiously active than citizens of many nations in the European Union, suggesting that once negative views and false information about the Church are dispelled, greater membership growth and activity may occur.  Because of high cigarette consumption rates,potential converts frequently struggle to completely end their cigarette addictions prior to baptism.  Converts who do not fully overcome substance addictions before baptism experience high rates of relapse and inactivity. 

 

National Outreach

The Church has achieved some of the most reaching national outreach in Southeastern Europe in Bulgaria, as cities with congregations account for 44% of the national population.  The 2010 decision to discontinue six branches and remove full-time missionaries from some cities limits mission outreach in cities accounting for seven percent of the population.  16 of the 28 administrative provinces account for 85% of the national population and have a congregation.  However, only 10 of these provinces have an independent branch.  The population living in medium-sized and smaller cities remains unreached. The approximately 50 cities with between 10,000 and 50,000 inhabitants do not have a congregation. 

 

Low receptivity to full-time missionaries and a lack of member-missionary efforts in many areas has reduced mission outreach over the past few years.  It is difficult for Church leaders to assign greater numbers of missionaries to Bulgaria, as the worldwide LDS missionary force has declined over the past decade while opportunities for missionary work have grown.  Expanding national outreach to additional cities will depend on members’ initiative for member-missionary work and on leadership for congregations in established church centers to reduce the demands on full-time missionaries to free up additional manpower. 

 

The Church has an Internet site in Bulgarian at http://www.lds.bg/index.html.  The website profiles information about the Church and its presence in Bulgaria, including contact information for local Church leaders.  Implementation of cottage meetings in member homes, the distribution of religious materials, and informing contacted individuals about the Bulgarian Church website can improve national outreach without sacrificing missionary manpower.

 

Member Activity and Convert Retention 

Limited gospel teaching and quick baptism tactics of full-time missionaries in the early 1990s fueled significant inactivity after only a few years of missionary presence.  Reactivation efforts were fruitful in the late 1990s, but little progress has been made in the 2000s.  In some cities, new converts have struggled to integrate into congregations and many have become inactive.  Threats of persecution and ostracism have likely deterred some from joining the Church or attending church meetings regularly.  Ambitions were high among many for a stake to be established in Sofia during the 2000s, but these efforts were frustrated due to low member activity, inadequate numbers of active Melchizedek Priesthood holders, and the slowdown in membership growth. 

 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Ethnic integration issues have not been reported in Bulgaria.  Some members in Bulgaria are Armenian.[23]  Non-Bulgarians do not appear to have challenges integrating into congregations with any more difficulty than new Bulgarian converts.  There remain no organized or concentrated mission efforts among the Roma people, which have been more receptive to Christian missionary efforts than in many other European nations.  Turkish Bulgarians appear to have received very little if any mission outreach as many reside in areas without a congregation, adhere to Islam, and speak Turkish.  The small size of the Bulgaria Sofia Mission allows greater potential for mission resources to be allocated to reaching minority ethnic groups than in many other missions.

 

Language Issues

All LDS scriptures and many Church materials are available in Bulgarian, allowing for outreach among all but a small subset of the population, primarily Roma or foreigners speaking languages with no Church materials translated.  There appears to be no outreach among Turkish speakers as no missionaries in Bulgaria are trained in the Turkish language.

 

Missionary Service

By May 1991, 10 elders, four sisters, and two couples were serving as missionaries in Bulgaria.[24]  Missionaries serving in Bulgaria grew to 70 in 2009 and dropped to 50 the following year.  Bulgaria remains dependent on foreign missionaries to staff its national missionary force.

 

The first native Bulgarian missionaries since the fall of communism began serving in 1992.  20 Bulgarian missionaries were serving primarily in Europe by mid-2000.[25] 

 

Leadership

Overreliance on full-time missionaries continues to challenge local members’ ability to staff needed leadership to allow congregations to run smoothly.  At least half the branches had native branch presidents in 2010.  There is a great need for more Bulgarian youth to join the Church and serve faithfully to ensure leadership for the future.   

 

Temple

Bulgaria belongs to the Freiburg Germany Temple district.  By 1996, there were 138 endowed members.  Temple trips occur regularly and have in the past included members in neighboring countries like Romania.  Travel to the temple is costly and time consuming, requiring significant sacrifice from members. 

 

Comparative Growth

Church growth in Bulgaria shares many characteristics with Romania as both have had a Church presence for two decades, around the same number of congregations, and similarly-sized memberships.  With the exception of Albania, Bulgaria has the highest percentage of LDS members in Southeastern European.  Activity rates remain higher than most of Eastern Europe. 

 

Many Christian denominations reported slow growth starting in the 2000s.  Seventh-day Adventists reported no increase in membership since 2002.  Jehovah’s Witnesses experienced modest increases in membership annually. 

 

Future Prospects

A shrinking full-time missionary force and the loss of active members to emigration continue to challenge the scope and vision of LDS expansion in Bulgaria.  Increasing materialism, negative views of the Church, and persecution have lessened the receptivity of many and will continue to present challenges.  Long-term growth consisting of expanded national outreach, self-sufficiency of local membership and leadership, increased missionary service, increase in active membership, will require wise placement of limited mission resources as well as policies and practices directed toward these ends.

 



[1]  "Roma in Bulgaria," wikipedia.com, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roma_in_Bulgaria. Accessed 5 August 2010.

[2]  “Bulgaria,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127303.htm

[3] “Bulgaria,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127303.htm

[4]  “Czechoslovakia grants recognition to the Church,” LDS Church News, 3 March 1990.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/20277/Czechoslovakia-Grants-recognition-to-the-Church.html

[5] “Mission to be created in Bulgaria,” LDS Church News, 18 May 1991.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/21385/Mission-to-be-created-in-Bulgaria.html

[6]  Stahle, Shaun.  “Four generations of Bulgarian family now members of Church,” LDS Church News, 3 July 1999.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/36001/Four-generations-of-Bulgarian-family-now-members-of-Church.html

[7]  Lloyd, Scott.  “European continent realigned into three new areas,” LDS Church News, 16 September 2000.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/38475/European-continent---realigned-into-three-new-areas.html

[8]  “Meet with Bulgarian leader,” LDS Church News, 10 February 2007.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/50119/Meet-with-Bulgarian-leader.html

[9]  “Mission to be created in Bulgaria,” LDS Church News, 18 May 1991.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/21385/Mission-to-be-created-in-Bulgaria.html

[10] Stahle, Shaun.  “Four generations of Bulgarian family now members of Church,” LDS Church News, 3 July 1999.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/36001/Four-generations-of-Bulgarian-family-now-members-of-Church.html

[11]  “Bulgaria,” Deseret News 2010 Church Almanac, p. 440-441

[12]  “At conference, Bulgarian youth realize many share their beliefs,” LDS Church News, 22 May 1999.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/35821/At-conference-Bulgarian-youth-realize-many-share-their-beliefs.html

[13]  “Conferences in Europe,” LDS Church News, 19 August 2006.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/49347/Conferences-in-Europe.html

[14]  “LDS Bulgarians mark Joseph Smith’s birth,” LDS Church News, 24 December 2005.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/48303/LDS-Bulgarians-mark-Joseph-Smiths-birth.html

[15]  “Bulgarian members celebrate freedoms,” LDS Church News, 27 May 2006.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/48995/Bulgarian-members-celebrate-freedoms.html

[16]  McFarlane, Esther.  “LDS Bulgarians come together for historic dedication,” LDS Church News, 8 July 2000.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/38111/LDS-Bulgarians-come-together-for-historic-dedication.html

[17]  “Volunteers bring hope to Bulgarian children,” LDS Church News, 5 June 1993.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/23188/Volunteers-bring-hope-to-Bulgarian-children.html

[18]  Gardner, Deborah Dushku.  “’One Heart’ provides fresh produce to orphans,” LDS Church News, 9 August 2003.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/44161/One-Heart-provides-fresh-produce-to-orphans.html

[19]  “New equipment to aid doctors, ease suffering,” LDS Church News, 24 March 2007.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/50273/New-equipment-to-aid-doctors-ease-suffering.html

[20]  “Bulgaria,” International Religious Freedom Report 2008, retrieved 19 May 2010.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2008/108439.htm

[21]  “Bulgaria,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127303.htm

[22]  Krupeva, Rositsa.  “Leaders greet mayor in friendly setting,” LDS Church News, 11 August 2007.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/50920/Leaders-greet-mayor-in-friendly-setting.html

[23]  “Bulgaria’s national fencing champion,” LDS Church News, 23 December 2006.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/49913/Bulgarias-national-fencing-champion.html

[24]  “Mission to be created in Bulgaria,” LDS Church News, 18 May 1991.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/21385/Mission-to-be-created-in-Bulgaria.html

[25]  “Bulgaria,” Deseret News 2010 Church Almanac, p. 440-441