The Eastern Orthodox Faith

What is Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and how did it become such an integral part of Bulgaria’s national identity?

A) Eastern Orthodox Christianity Conduct an Interview
B) The Church in Bulgaria Twitter Talk
C) Bulgaria’s Self-Identification Create a Diorama
D) Exclusions of the “Other” Prezi Brief on Current Events

This lesson was contributed to by Ms. Rita Ulrich.

A) Eastern Orthodox Christianity

  1. What is Eastern Orthodox Christianity? Draw a Venn diagram and compare/contrast Eastern Orthodoxy to a faith of your choice. Include in your comparison the founder of the faith, main tenants of the faith, and important features of the buildings.
  2. Find an Eastern Orthodox Church close to where you live. Using their website, research the following:
    1. When was the church founded?
    2. Who was the church named for?
    3. What ethnicity does the church serve? Bulgarians, Russians, Greek, Serbian, etc.
  3. Think of the design of the Eastern Orthodox Church. How does the design and orientation of the building on the Earth play an important role in the faith? What other buildings do you know of that incorporate symbolism into their design and construction?
  4. What are the five main differences between the Catholic faith and the Eastern Orthodoxy faith?

“Orthodox” means “right believing.”  The term was adopted by the Eastern Orthodox Church as a way to signify the belief that theirs was the true Christian religion. The Eastern Orthodox Church claims to have faithfully preserved the traditions and doctrines of the early Christian church established by the original twelve apostles. By contrast, Orthodox Church leaders believe that other Christian groups has strayed from this path, altering their practices and in the process losing some of the original elements of Christianity.  This is one of the main reasons that the Eastern Orthodox Church split away from the Catholic Church in 1054 CE.  Later, history would remember this event as the Great Schism

From the 4th to the 11th century, Constantinople (now known as Istanbul, Turkey) was the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. At the time, it also served as the capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire.  The city of Rome itself, along with the Western Empire, on the other hand, fell under the influence of a series of Goths, Gauls, and other northern Europeans.  At the time of the Great Schism of 1054, the Holy Church – unified under Roman rule for nearly 1000 years since the time of Christ – became divided between what are known today as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The first came to have its center located in within the city of Rome, in the modern world’s smallest country, the Vatican, while the other has its center in Constantinople.  Constantinople served as a major trading port and gateway between Eastern and Western Europe.  Its political, military, economic, and cultural dominance meant that membership for the Eastern Orthodox Church spread throughout the Middle East, the Balkans, and Russia. Image result for byzantine empire 1025

The head of each Orthodox Church is called a “patriarch” or “metropolitan.” From the date of its construction in 537 AD until 1453, Hagia Sophia, pictured to the right, served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Patriarch is considered the universal leader. He is the closest counterpart to the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church that the Eastern Orthodox Church has.

Orthodox churches are almost always oriented East to West, with the main entrance of the building at the West end. This symbolizes the entrance of the worshiper from the darkness of sin (the West) into the light of truth (the East). On the roof of Orthodox churches are usually found one or more cupolas (towers with rounded or pointed roofs), called crests or summits. One cupola signifies Christ; three cupolas symbolize the Most-Holy Trinity; five cupolas represent Christ and the four Evangelists; seven cupolas symbolize the Seven Ecumenical Councils which formulated the basic dogmas of the Orthodox Church, as well as the general use in the Church of the sacred number seven; nine cupolas represent the traditional nine ranks of Angels; and thirteen cupolas signify Christ and the Twelve Apostles.

The Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral shown below in Varna, Bulgaria has six very noticeable cupolas. The orientation of the church even matches with the layout requirement of the design for Eastern Orthodox Churches, running East to West, with the entrance facing the West.

One of the main differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity is their different approaches to theology. This may be largely due to cultural differences between Western society and Eastern European society – differences that predate even the Great Schism or the split of the Roman Empire. The Eastern view of religion is inclined toward “philosophy, mysticism, and ideology, whereas the Western outlook is guided more by a practical and legal mentality” explains Thoughtco, which “can be seen in the subtly different ways that Eastern and Western Christians approach spiritual truth.” Orthodox Christians believe that religious truth can only be personally experienced and because of that, the faith places less emphasis on its precise definition than does the more legally-focused Catholic Church of the West.

One of the main differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity is their different approaches to theology. This may be largely due to cultural differences between Western society and Eastern European society – differences that predate even the Great Schism or the split of the Roman Empire. The Eastern view of religion is inclined toward “philosophy, mysticism, and ideology, whereas the Western outlook is guided more by a practical and legal mentality” explains Thoughtco, which “can be seen in the subtly different ways that Eastern and Western Christians approach spiritual truth.” Orthodox Christians believe that religious truth can only be personally experienced and because of that, the faith places less emphasis on its precise definition than does the more legally focused Catholic Church of the West.

With over 250 million members, the Eastern Orthodox Church is one of the oldest active religious institutions in the world.   Eastern Orthodoxy has played a large role in the history and culture of Eastern Europe since its beginnings – which it traces to the day that Jesus Christ rose from the dead in or around 33 A.D.  Most believers in the Orthodox faith still live in the same areas where their ancestors were converted hundreds or thousands of years ago, but the faith has spread to other regions of the world as adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church have moved and migrated to new nations around the world.

B) The Church in Bulgaria

  1. Check out this video, Rick Steves’s coverage of Bulgaria: 
    1. Watch from 4:45 to 6:10. Why was Alexander Nevsky church built? Why is who it was built for so unusual? What do you notice about the design of the church? How is the church designed on the inside? What do you notice that is in abundance in the cathedral, and what appears to be missing that is usually a central feature of most Western churches?
    2. Watch the same video from 7:38 to 10:00. What was the original purpose of Rila Monastery? Look at the fresco paintings on the outside of the main church. Why are there so many images and stories? What purpose do you think they served in the past historically? What does Rila Monastery symbolize for the Bulgarian people? Why do you think the people treasure the monastery so much?
  2. Take a virtual tour of the Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral.  Choose a scene from the virtual tour to recreate in a drawing or painting. Make your drawing or painting informational with labels and descriptions for as much of the items and details in the scene as possible. Be sure to make sure your image is neat, organized, and colorful. Have your descriptions be clear, concise, and easy to understand.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church considers itself a member of the larger Eastern Orthodox Community and is organized as a self-governing body.  It is divided into thirteen dioceses within the boundaries of the country, along with jurisdiction over additional two dioceses for Bulgarians living in Western and Central Europe, the Americas, Canada and Australia. The dioceses of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church are divided into 58 church counties, which are further divided into approximately 2,600 parishes, or churches.


Bulgaria’s capital Sofia is also home to the patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.  His seat of power is called Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral occupies an area of just over 34,000 sq ft., and can hold 10,000 worshipers. It is the second-largest cathedral located on the Balkan Peninsula, a region of Eastern Europe that includes Croatia, Serbia & Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Albania.

The insides of most Eastern Orthodox churches are all extremely similar, regardless of the size of the church. The building is typically laid out in a cross shape, with the walls painted colorfully and containing scenes from stories known to many Christians. Viewed from inside, the center of each dome, or cupola, holds a central image that is also intricately painted and detailed. In the center of all churches you will find a large chandelier, often with smaller chandeliers in the other branches. The churches are filled with iconography of past saints, their images sometimes gilt in gold. Throughout the church are numerous locations to light candles as prayer offerings for both the living and the dead.Image result for iconostasis diagramSeparating the public portion of the church from the sanctuary where the tabernacle is located is the iconostasis. The iconostasis is a wall of icons and religious paintings, as seen below. Some are quite simple, again like the one below, while others are ornate and complex in design and detail.  Painted on the iconostasis are the most important religious figures of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the relative beauty and majesty of a iconostasis is often a point of pride for a congregation.

Image result for iconostasis diagramOne of the most famous Eastern Orthodox Churches is Rila Monastery, the largest monastery in Bulgaria. It is situated in the southwestern Rila Mountains, and has a complicated ten-century history. UNESCO explains that the Rila Monastery was “the hub of a strong spiritual and artistic influence over the Eastern Orthodox world during medieval times (11th-14th c.). Under Ottoman rule (1400-1878) the monastery influenced the development of the culture and the arts of all Christian nations within the Ottoman Empire. With its architecture, frescos etc. it represents a masterpiece of the creative genius of the Bulgarian people.”

C) Bulgaria’s Self-Identification

  1. Research the current census data for your state. What are the demographics for religion in your state?  Do you think that the number of people who identify as members of a religion is the same as the number who actual practice (ie, attend worship services, pray, etc)?   How could you investigate how many those who make up the largest faith in your state are currently practicing?  Using Google maps, locate how many places of worship for that faith are located near your state’s capitol.
  2. What allowed the Eastern Orthodoxy to survive through both the Ottoman Empire and Communism? Do you think that this was a good thing or a bad thing? Is it dangerous to allow a faith to become part of a national identity? What do you think happens to minority groups that do not follow that faith?
  3. Focusing on America, how many times does the United States use the term “In God we Trust,” or the word “God” on items, in phrases, or on buildings? In what areas of life do the term or phrase appear? Think about law, money, national buildings, and governmental procedures.  Write an argumentative essay on how much Christianity has become part of the United States identity. Once everyone in your class has written their argumentative essay, hold an in-class debate arguing the main points.  Use the following stories for support in your answer:
    1. You Have to Be Christian to Be American 
    2. Did America Have a Christian Founding?  

In 2001, a census had 82% of Bulgarians identifying as Eastern Orthodox Christians. Ethnic Bulgarians, the ethnic majority in the country, make up the majority of the Bulgarian Church’s followers. Some estimate that as many as 90% of ethnic Bulgarians identify with the religion, a number highly disputed.

Skeptics of this estimate point out that of those Bulgarians who identify as Eastern Orthodox, many don’t actually attend church or actively worship on a regular basis.  In fact, by 2011, the percentage of Bulgarians self-identifying as Eastern Orthodox had fallen to 60%. 

Still, the fact that so many Bulgarians identify as religious speaks to the country’s history -nearly 500 years of rule by the Islamic Ottoman Empire beginning in the 1400s. By he late 1800s, Bulgarians, Romanians, Greeks, and others won their independence from the Ottoman Turks and began reestablishing their own national identities.  Deprived of political autonomy for so long, and as a means differentiating themselves from their Muslim rulers, religion became central to Bulgarians’ sense of self.

As Bulgaria carved an independent national identity out of the declining Ottoman Empire, church dioceses inside the nation began to identify more strongly with Bulgaria itself rather than with the larger Patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  As a result, when the liberating/conquering Soviets brought communism – an atheistic ideology – to Bulgaria after World War II, the peoples’ identification with Bulgarian Eastern Orthodoxy only became stronger. 

In most countries, this era of Stalinist totalitarian rule was characterized by hostile and militant atheism – a ruthless quest to seek and destroy faith and religion. Communist authorities claimed that removing faith was, “overcoming religious superstitions and remnants of the past.” Uniquely, as the Eastern Orthodox church was ingrained so heavily into Bulgarian life, the communist regime allowed the church to remain while others were closed.  The Eastern Orthodox faith never disappeared, once again outlasting the conquering foreign empire; the Soviet Union fell in 1991.

Orthodox icons for sale in Bulgaria.  These colorful portraits of Christ, Mary, or important saints are displayed in the homes of the devout and serve as focal points for prayer and worship.

Over the last century, the Orthodox Christian population around the world has more than doubled and now stands at nearly 260 million. In Russia alone, it has surpassed 100 million, a sharp resurgence after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, research indicates that 83% of Bulgarians have icons at home to worship.  This  stands in stark contrast to the fact that the same studies suggest that only 30-50% of Bulgarians attend church on a regular basis.

Truly, saying, “I am a Christian,” can mean different things at different times and depending on who is asking.

D) Exclusion of the Other

  1. What rules and restrictions does Bulgaria have in place for the protection of diverse religious groups? How is the current law design and wording exclusionary against those who it is supposed to protect? Think about the “advantages” given to those who are Eastern Orthodox.
  2. Discrimination is defined as: “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex can be argued to be a form of discrimination.” In your opinion, does the difference in treatment based on religion qualify as discrimination? Why or why not?
  3. Choose one of these two articles to read — Religious Minorities Suffer Violent Attacks from Bulgarian Nationalists or Inside Bulgaria’s Proposed Ban on “Radical Islam.”  After reading, complete a news article analysis using the following format:
    1. Headline of article? Byline?
    2. Who is the author? What are they writing about? Where is the story based? When was it written? Why did they write it?
    3. Are there direct quotes? Who is quoted? What information is in the quote?
    4. Are there indirect quotes? Whose is indirectly quoted? What information is given?
    5. Are there pictures that accompany the story? What impact does the picture(s) have on the reader?
  4. What could the Bulgarian government do to better protect religious minorities? Work together with your class to write a letter to a public official with a proposal of how the government could make sure that discrimination and acts of violence either decrease or stop. Use this as an opportunity to research how past leaders in other countries have solved discrimination issues in their own nation. Make sure your letter is addressed appropriately, maintains a respectful tone, and lays out your class’s idea clearly.

In the early 1990s, after freeing themselves from centuries of outside domination – first by the Muslim Turks and then by Russian Communists – the leaders of newly independent and democratic Bulgaria sat down to write a guiding constitution. Both within that constitution, as well as in additional laws, the leaders of Bulgaria guaranteed all citizens living in the country are guaranteed the freedom of religion.

Despite this, the constitution also named Eastern Orthodoxy as the “traditional” religion of the country. 

Neo-Nazi graffitti in Sofia, Bulgaria, 2017.

Although on paper the government has respected the religious freedom of its citizens, in practice there have been problems for minority religions. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims, for example, have repeatedly reported issues of not being granted permits for the construction of religious buildings. There have also been increasing reports of discriminatory actions against the Jewish and Muslim communities. In some extreme cases, synagogues and mosques have been vandalized.

The Department of State in the United States reports that “Jewish community leaders continued to express concern over increasing incidents of anti-Semitism on social media and online forums. They said examples included accusations that Jews hated all other people and were enemies of the state, that Jews caused the crises in the Middle East with the intent to cause a refugee wave that would destroy Europe, and statements such as ‘Crush the dastardly Jewish scum! Khazar plague!’ In some cases, the same statements were reposted or shared on mainstream media websites.”  Some of this rhetoric has been translated to action.  In September of 2017, for example, gravestones in the Jewish section of Central Sofia Cemetery were vandalized and desecrated.

Vandalized headstones in the Jewish cemetary, Sofia, September 2017.

Such extreme events are rare though, and it is important to note that there is no evidence that discrimination is committed by anything more than a minority of Bulgarians. 

While there are incidents of prejudice, discrimination, and in rare cases, violent actions against religious minorities, the capitol of Sofia serves as a good reminder that there is still hope for progress and change. Below is a photograph showing three places of worship representing three distinct traditions, all within walking distance and eyesight of each other. On the left, indicated by the first arrow, is Saint Nedelya, an Eastern Orthodox church. In the center is St. Joseph, a Catholic cathedral. The far left arrow points to the Banya Bashi Mosque.

church mosque temple


  1. Locate the closest Eastern Orthodox Church to your school.  If possible, arrange a phone or Skype interview with a religious leader from the church – or even take a field trip.  Break the class into groups to develop questions to ask the church representative.
  2. Set up several large sheets of paper around the walls of the classroom. Students should break up into groups evenly between the groups. For the first stop, read the quote and write a short (150 letter maximum) response to the quote. At the following station, read and respond to the original responses to the quote. Repeat the second step until the students have returned to their original quote they began with. The quotes that can be used for this activity are:
    1. “Do not claim to have acquired virtue unless you have suffered affliction, for without affliction virtue has not been tested.” St. Mark the Ascetic
    2. “You must not be greatly troubled about many things, but you should care for the main thing — preparing yourself for death.” St. Ambrose of Optina
    3. “You must not be greatly troubled about many things, but you should care for the main thing — preparing yourself for death.” St. Ambrose of Optina
    4. “Religion is like a pair of shoes…..Find one that fits for you, but don’t make me wear your shoes.” George Carlin
    5. “It’s an universal law– intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
    6. “Laws alone can not secure freedom of expression; in order that every man present his views without penalty there must be spirit of tolerance in the entire population.” Albert Einstein
    7. “Tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.” Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  3. Create a miniature version of a section of an Eastern Orthodox church. Include a view of the inside section of the church building, realistic images of how the wall or iconostasis looks, along with other main parts of the church that may be included in your section (such as candles, saints relics, etc.). Please be creative in your work, and complete adequate research to ensure that your replica is accurate. Include with your diorama a minimum one paragraph information card on the church you have opted to create. It should include the creation date of your church, location, and other interesting facts.
  4. Choose one of the following religious minorities: Bulgarian-Speaking Muslims (also called Pomaks), Romas (also known as Gypsys), Turks, or Macedonians. Using this website to guide you, create a Prezi presentation on your religious group.  Focus on the following in your presentation:
    1. The religious group you selected
      1. The group’s main beliefs
      2. Main symbols of the faith
      3. Main written text or book
    2. Current numbers in Bulgaria by number and percent
    1. Where they live in the nation
      1. Include a map
    2. Include the headlines for two recent news stories that focus on the group.
      1. Explain the main idea of the news stories.
      2. What issues of discrimination, if any, have occurred in the last five years?
    3. What, if any, major historical events occurred between the religious group and ethnic Bulgarians?

Ms. Rita Ulrich is an contributor, with lessons focused on the 2010s refugee crisis in Bulgaria, as well as many other topics.  She graduated with a bachelors of science from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, majoring in both social science education as well as psychology. Afterwards, she pursued a masters in international education from the University of Sydney, Australia. Ms. Ulrich began as a teacher rather unusually, by deciding to start her career overseas in Seoul, South Korea. After falling in love with the culture, she decided to stay for a total of four years, spending most of her time teaching both middle school and high school students. Then, Ms. Ulrich moved to Qinhuangdao, China, teaching at Northeastern University at Qinhuangdao working with freshmen and junior students. She returned to the United States in 2015 in order to continue teaching at an American school, becoming a recipient of the Fulbright-Hays award to Bulgaria and Greece in 2017. She currently teaches social studies and A.P. psychology at a college preparatory high school in North Carolina.