Pope Francis urged Bulgarians to open their hearts and doors to refugees as he began a visit to the European Union’s poorest country, where the main Orthodox Church snubbed holding joint prayers with the pontiff.
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov met Francis at the airport, with the government welcoming how the visit has put the former communist country, which joined the EU in 2007, and the Balkans in the international spotlight.
The three-day tour, which also takes in North Macedonia, includes a visit to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Sofia and a commemoration of Mother Teresa, the most famous native of the Macedonian capital Skopje.
The Pope evoked the “new winter” plaguing Bulgaria and other European nations facing an exodus as well as falling birth rates, in his first address to Bulgarian officials.
The population has fallen to seven million against nine million in 1989, the year communism ended in Bulgaria, and is projected to plunge to 5.4 million in 2050.
“Bulgaria faces the effects of the emigration in recent decades of over two million of her citizens in search of new opportunities for employment,” he said, adding that this had “led to the depopulation and abandonment of many villages and cities”.
He also touched on the plight of migrants and refugees flocking to the country.
“Bulgaria confronts the phenomenon of those seeking to cross its borders in order to flee wars, conflicts or dire poverty, in the attempt to reach the wealthiest areas of Europe, there to find new opportunities in life or simply a safe refuge,” the pope said.
“To all Bulgarians, who are familiar with the drama of emigration, I respectfully suggest that you not close your eyes, your hearts or your hands – in accordance with your best tradition – to those who knock at your door,” he said.
Francis, whose papacy has been marred by a wave of child sex abuse allegations against clergy, has made improving interfaith dialogue a priority.
But last month the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod rejected the idea of Orthodox priests participating in a joint “prayer for peace” with the pope in a Sofia square which had been planned for Monday.
The Orthodox Church is instead sending a children’s choir to the downgraded meeting which will be attended by at least one of the capital’s Muslim leaders, a Vatican source said.
“I’m an Orthodox Christian, but I admire the pope’s openness and sensitivity. Why stay attached to medieval dogmas? There is only one God,” said Dora Kraytcheva, 48, ahead of the pope’s arrival.
While the visit will be a particular highlight for the tiny Catholic communities in both countries — 44,000 people in Bulgaria and 20,000 in North Macedonia — it is the interaction with their two Orthodox churches that will be most keenly watched.
The Bulgarian church also made clear its opposition to any religious service when the pope visited Sofia’s St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Pope offered prayers there on Sunday afternoon alone.
Bulgaria is the only Orthodox church not to participate in a commission fostering dialogue with the Roman Catholic church.
Relations between Rome and other Orthodox churches have been warming, with February 2016 seeing the historic meeting between Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba.
That was the first such encounter since the schism nearly 1,000 years ago that tore Christianity in two.
The meeting was sharply criticized by conservative Russian nationalists — the same tendency that has acted as a brake on any moves by Bulgaria’s Patriarch Neophyte towards greater openness.
The Argentine pontiff’s visit to Bulgaria and North Macedonia comes after the leaders of both countries extended an invitation to him following a traditional annual visit to the tomb of St Cyril in Rome.
In April 2018, the Council of Europe voiced concern about Bulgarian efforts to integrate Middle Eastern refugees and the “generally negative public opinion” concerning refugees.
Days before arriving in Sofia, the pope hit out at “conflictual nationalism” which “raises walls, even racism”.
“The way in which a nation welcomes migrants reveals its vision of human dignity,” he said on Thursday.
Currently Bulgaria’s migrant reception centers have an occupancy rate of only 10 percent, while the entire 274-kilometre (170-mile) Bulgarian-Turkish border is equipped with a barbed-wire fence.