The Repressions against the Catholic Church and
against Catholics in Bulgaria (1944-1989)
Professor, Dr. of History
Catholics in Bulgaria are a minority religious
community that does not exceed one per cent of the country’s population.
In the mid-20th century they numbered about 50,000, with
Church-administrative division between three dioceses and two rites:
the Nikopol Diocese for Roman Catholics in Northern Bulgaria, the
Sofia-Plovdiv Diocese for Roman Catholics in Southern Bulgaria,
and the Catholic Exarchate for Catholics of the Eastern Rite (popularly
known as Uniates) for the entire country. Until the communist regime
was established, they enjoyed all constitutional rights and freely
professed their religion.
After the coup d’état on 9 September 1944,
the Catholics in Bulgaria were confronted with the all-subordinating
power and militant atheism of the totalitarian state. Unlike the
Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which took upon itself most of the anticlerical
moods of the new regime and gave many victims, on account of its
status of predominant religious denomination, the Catholic Church
initially enjoyed relative peace. This atypical reserve on the part
of the communists was due mainly to the Paris Peace Conference,
which had to resolve the post-War situation in the country. For
this reason the Catholics missed the first wave of the political
repressions. On 12 September 1944, a Decree of the Council of Ministers
for the arrest of the persons connected in one form or another with
the former regime triggered the mass terror, which was subsequently
legitimised by means of the Ordinance-Law on the so-called People’s
Tribunal, adopted on 30 September and promulgated on 6 October 1944.
During those days and nights of St. Bartholomew’s
massacres, the Catholic Church gave only one victim: 29-year-old
Flavian Mankin, priest in the village of Sekirovo near Plovdiv (at
present a district of the town of Rakovski). At the end of October,
his body was found caught in the branches of the willow-trees along
the Stryama River, where his assassins had thrown him directly from
the bridge. The motives for this crime are unknown to this day,
the murderers have not been identified. There were no other atrocities
against Catholics, with the exception of the fact that several priests
and monks with German citizenship were initially sent to the newly-established
labour camps and were later extradited.
In spite of the relative tolerance to the Catholic
Church in Bulgaria, especially compared to what was happening in
the other Eastern Bloc countries, the repressive institutions of
the communist regime did not lose sight of it. The Catholics in
the country were under the close scrutiny of Department “B” of the
State Security, which had preserved its old profile – fight against
foreign intelligence and propaganda – from the time prior to 9 September
1944. Since 1946, especially after Sir Winston Churchill delivered
his famous speech in Fulton, in which the actual division of Europe
between democracy and totalitarianism was qualified with the sinister
metaphor of the “Iron Curtain”, the Catholic clergy attracted more
and more the operational interest of the State Security system.
Targets of prime importance were the Vatican Office in Sofia, which
at that time was headed by the Apostolic delegate Mons. Francesco
Galloni, the editorial office of the Catholic weekly Istina
[Truth], the administration and the teaching staff of the Catholic
The years 1946-1948 were a brief transitional period
from ostensible tolerance to creeping discrimination. During that
period a number of legislative measures were adopted and enforced,
which narrowed more and more the perimeter of the Catholic Church,
similar to the other religious denominations in the country, especially
in the educational and social spheres. The expropriation of Catholic
property grew in scale, the interference in the internal structure
and activities of the colleges, orphanages and charity organisations
intensified, censorship and control over the printing and publishing
Two international events played a decisive role
for the consolidation of that tendency. The Paris Peace Treaty was
signed on 10 February 1947, which freed the communist authorities
in Bulgaria from the obligation to have a policy towards the Catholic
Church. An even stronger impulse for intensifying the anti-Catholic
moods came from Moscow, where a Pan-Orthodox meeting of representatives
of the Orthodox Churches from the communist bloc was held from 8
to 18 July 1948. The keynote speech of the Russian Patriarch Alexiy
and the reports of the other participants “exposed” Pope Pius XII
and the Vatican as tools of Anglo-American imperialism. A special
Decree was also adopted on the fight against the aggression of the
Catholic propaganda. Already at the time of the Pan-Orthodox Meeting,
on 14 July, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian
Communist Party (BCP) adopted a Draft-Decree on the closing down
of all foreign schools in the country, among which the Catholic
colleges featured very prominently with their prestige, authority
The final transition from creeping discrimination
to open repression was made with the adoption of the Religious Denominations
Act on 24 February 1949, which banned all activities of the Church
outside the church building. Relations with the Vatican were severed,
Mons. Francesco Galloni was not allowed to return to Bulgaria after
a trip abroad, and the Apostolic Delegation in Sofia was closed
down. Under the Religious Denominations Act, all foreign nationals
who were members of religious orders and congregations, were forced
to leave the country. The State confiscated all Catholic hospitals,
orphanages and other similar institutions in exchange for a minimal
compensation, far below their real value. The buildings of the already
closed schools, boarding schools and colleges were also expropriated.
The publishing of the Istina newspaper and of the other printed
editions of the Catholic Church was stopped. Atheist propaganda
became particularly brutal, and the bishops in the three dioceses
were forced to send out messages to the believers on various domestic
and international events in the spirit of the official political
Parallel with the legislative and administrative
restrictions, the pressure of the secret services also intensified.
The Catholic Church, together with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church
and the Protestant denominations, were the target of the operational
work of the agents from the Clergy and Sects Group of the First
Department of the State Security, to which the “fight against counterrevolution”
had been entrusted. In 1949, the Department and its territorial
structures were in charge of a total of 20 active investigations,
24 preliminary investigations and 204 surveillance and reporting
cases, on which 339 agents worked. The Catholic Church was also
actively investigated in the context of counterintelligence by the
Second Department of the State Security as accomplice in the “spying
activities” of the Vatican, the Western European countries and the
USA. Due to the constantly increasing scope of the operational work
of the State Security agents, the full-time staff and the agents
rapidly increased in numbers.
The Korean War and the exacerbated international
situation in the early 1950s proved fatal for the Bulgarian Catholics.
Insofar as all potential opponents of the regime within the country
had already been either liquidated or marginalised, the Catholic
Church became the scapegoat for the anti-Western moods in the country.
In December 1951, a national meeting was held in Sofia between the
high-ranking State Security officials and the highest state and
communist party leadership. In his keynote speech, the Minister
of the Interior Georgi Tsankov expressed the view that the international
situation had already become critically exacerbated and that the
imperialist forces headed by the USA were deliberately and consistently
preparing for a new world war. The rise of international reaction
exacerbated the class struggle in the country and activated the
enemy elements. In order to oppose successfully the internal and
the external enemies, recommendations were made to the State Security
structures to identify the entire enemy contingent and to subject
it to rapid “realisation”, to improve the work of the agents and
operational staff by recruiting higher quality agents, and to speed
up the investigation. That was generally the spirit also of the
statement made by Vulko Chervenkov, Prime Minister and First Secretary
of the BCP: “No complacency, no slacking, it is necessary to work
hard and intensively. The suppurating nests of spies and bandits
should be neutralised and cleared. They must be neutralised and
cleared totally precisely now!”
In the early 1952, the organisational structure
of the State Security was brought in conformity with the requirements
for a more active and relentless fight against the foreign espionage
and against the enemies at home. The First Department was transformed
into Third Division for Combating Internal Reaction, and the Second
Department became Second Division for Combating Enemy Espionage.
The Catholic Church and the Catholics continued to be torn between
the counterrevolution and the counterintelligence.
The new course of the State Security, outlined
by its National Meeting and materialised in the structural reorganisation,
was directed predominantly against the Catholic Church. The Catholic
clergy and the more intelligent and more active Catholics ideally
matched the notion of the Bulgarian secret services of an enemy
contingent of foreign intelligence structures. Precisely that was
the orientation of most of the active investigations in the Catholic
sphere conducted until then. The same is also suggested by many
documents in the information massif of the State Security structures,
accumulated during the previous years. And as most of the other
lines of operation were already largely exhausted in terms of detentions,
investigation and trials, the Catholic Church proved most suitable
at the moment for satisfying the insatiable needs of the domestic
That unfortunate leading position of the Catholics
was clearly evident from the figures in the report of the Third
Division on its activities in 1952. If in the beginning of the year,
the potential enemies of the regime among the circles of the Catholic
Church, classified in the group of the so-called “enemy contingent”,
numbered 70, most of whom clergymen, by the end of the year they
became 400. This almost six-fold increase illustrates best the “privileged”
position that the Catholic Church had after the National Meeting
of the State Security. No other line of operations in the Division
marked such an explosive growth, as that happened with the Catholics.
Most investigations of Catholic targets, conducted
by the State Security structures in Sofia and in the countryside,
were transferred from the area of counterrevolutionary elements
to the enemy intelligence structures. They were conducted personally
by the Heads of the Second and Third Divisions, and were supervised
by the Deputy-Minister of the Interior. In addition to working with
information supplied by agents, during that period the State Security
started organising various technical campaigns, which they designated
with names of Bulgarian rivers: “Mesta” – installing and use of
bugging devices; “Panega” – opening and photographing of correspondence
sent by mail; “Topolnitsa” – telephone tapping. Another frequent
practice was the illegal entry into homes and search, the so-called
“secret search.” Another technique used was “combining the object
with a woman” or “throwing a woman” with the aim of discrediting
and potential subsequent recruitment as informer. The same was also
done sometimes with men.
The targets of the group and individual operational
work of the State Security in the Catholic sphere were “addressed”
several times throughout 1952. The Prime Minister Vulko Chervenkov
personally insisted on dealing in an uncompromising manner with
the Catholic clergy. On 26 June 1952, he placed the following resolution
on the report of the Minister of the Interior: “It is necessary
to act with determination with respect to the Catholic bandits,
including by arresting the Catholic Exarch, if there is evidence
to support it. You must stop before nothing. Keep me informed on
the issue. It is necessary to prepare well a trial on the basis
of the disclosures made and to raze to the ground the nests of the
Catholic bandits in Bulgaria. In addition, we shall consult our
Soviet friends. When the investigation is basically completed, make
a concise presentation on what has been discovered, which we shall
send to our friends with a request for advice, and we shall destroy
the Catholic bandits. We are destroying the bandit’s contacts of
the Catholic Church with the Vatican, the Vatican is organising
nests of criminals here. A trial against the bandits in Bulgaria
will have an anti-Vatican and anti-Papal spearhead.”
The “big hunt” for Catholic clergymen was followed
by retributions in the courtroom against them. Assen Chonkov, parish
priest in the village of Burdarski Geran, Nikopol Diocese, had the
sad fame of being the first defendant in a series of trials. He
was arrested already in July 1950, allegedly as the chief organiser
of the spontaneous rebellion in the region against the coercive
collecting of the so-called “state deliveries” of cereal food. The
indictment issued by the District Prosecutor in Vratsa qualified
Assen Chonkov as “supporter of the monarcho-fascist rule” and as
“saboteur of initiatives of the Fatherland Front.” For these offences
he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.
The second trial took place in Sofia on 14 January
1952. The defendant was the Capuchin Damyan Gyulov from the Sofia-Plovdiv
Diocese, former Editor of the Istina newspaper. He was accused
of spying and of anti-government activities. He was sentenced to
12 years imprisonment, 15 years depriving of civil rights and total
confiscation of the property.
The third trial was on 3 June 1952, again in Sofia.
The defendants were the Capuchin priest from Sofia Robert Proustov
and his assistant-janitor Stefan Tsokov. Both men were accused of
spying and anti-government activities. Robert Proustov was sentenced
to 20 years imprisonment, 22 years depriving of civil rights and
total confiscation of the property. Stefan Tsokov was sentenced
to 10 years imprisonment, 12 years depriving of civil rights and
total confiscation of the property.
A trial “behind closed doors” was organised in
Plovdiv on 6 June 1952, at which the case against Father Yossiv
Tonchev, a Capichin, was heard. The charges against him were also
of espionage, but his sentence was most severe. Yossif Tonchev was
sentenced to death and executed on 23 January 1953.
The first four trials were opened and closed in
one day, they were not made public and did not have a strong echo
in the Bulgarian community, except in the circles of the Catholic
Church. The arrests on a mass scale in 1952, conducted with deliberate
ostentatiousness, made it clear that the authorities had changed
their tactics and were preparing a public trial.
The 40 people arrested in July 1952, among whom
there was one Bishop, 25 priests and one nun, were accused of spying
and subversive activities against the People’s democratic rule.
“Confessions” were wrung from them by subjecting them to physical
and psychological torture. The most frequently used method was the
so-called “merry-go-round” – 24-hour interrogation for days, whereby
the investigators rotated, while the detainees were kept on the
verge of total physical and mental exhaustion, when they were no
longer capable of making a difference between reality and fantasy.
The “merry-go-round” was usually diversified with beatings. Precisely
such tortures during the interrogation were the cause of the death
of Fortunat Balkanski, former Editor of the Istina newspaper.
In less than three months, the material of the
investigation on case No. 859/1952 concerning the “spying and conspiratorial
Catholic organisation in Bulgaria” was ready. That was the charge
in the courtroom farce enacted in Sofia from 29 September to 3 October
1952, which was extensively covered by the media. The case was heard
by a panel of the Supreme Court, and a display was organised in
the courtroom of a part of the “evidence” that had been planted
by the secret services during the arrests and searches: machine
guns, guns, bombs, pistols, radio stations and gold coins. From
the indictment and from the minutes of the court sessions, extensively
covered in the newspapers, it became clear that the defendants participated
in a big espionage organisation that had been created and headed
by the Vatican.
On 3 October, the court pronounced the sentences
which had a petrifying effect on account of their severity. Four
people were sentenced to death by firing squad: Bishop Evgeniy Bossilkov
from the Nikopol Diocese, a Passionist, and the Assumptionists Kamen
Vichev, Pavel Djidjov and Yossafat Shishkov. The other sentences
varied from 3 to 20 years imprisonment: two of the defendants were
sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, six received 15 years, two –
14 years, eleven – 12 years, nine – 10 years, four – 8, 6, 5 and
3 years accordingly, and two – 18 months. Thus 40 people received
four death sentences and a total of 405 years in prison!
The death sentences were executed at 11:30 p.m.
on 11 November 1952 at the Central Prison in Sofia. The executions
of Evgeniy Bossilkov, Kamen Vichev, Pavel Djidjov and Yossafat Shishkov
were not publicly declared by the end of the communist regime in
On 29 October 1952, the Sofia Regional Court tried
the case of Bishop Ivan Romanov, Vicar of the Sofia-Plovdiv Diocese.
The charges had already become traditional: espionage. The sentence
was relatively light – 12 years in prison – but for the 74-year-old
bishop is was tantamount to execution. Bishop Ivan Romanov died
in prison just two months later, on 8 January 1953.
From 2 to 4 December 1952, the Sofia Regional Court
tried another case of Catholic priests and civilians accused of
espionage. In that trial ten people were brought before the court,
one of whom was sentenced to death, one received a sentence of 20
years in prison, two – 15 years, two – 10 years and two – 6 years.
With this the series of trials against Catholic
bishops, priests and laymen ended. At the same time, however, two
dozens of Catholic priests, monks and nuns were sent without trial
or sentence to labour-correctional communities – a euphemism used
in the past for the communist concentration camps.
On 12 March 1953, the Presidium of the National
Assembly issued a confidential Decree No. 88 under which all remaining
property of the Catholic Church was confiscated, with the exception
of the churches, the churchyards and the buildings on their territory.
In this way, 188 different types of property were seized: buildings,
courtyards, fields, meadows, orchards and vegetable gardens, vineyards,
etc., without paying compensation for any of them.
The Catholic Church in Bulgaria had never before
suffered such a severe blow as the communist regime inflicted upon
it in 1952-1953. Maybe it would have been followed by even more
devastating and merciless blows, if Stalin had not died on 5 March
1953. His death brought a certain calming down of the repressive
machine of the communist regime both in the Soviet Union and in
Bulgaria. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church continued to be perceived
as a dangerous adversary capable of shaking the foundations of the
socio-political system. Instead of organising trials and executions,
the State Security changed its tactics and started recruiting agents
from among the circles of the Catholic clergy and believers. In
the 1950s, there were about 1,000 people included in the “enemy
contingent” from among the Bulgarian Catholics and they were kept
on record at the Clergy and Sects Department, with more than 100
individual and group investigations and recruitment operations organised.
The apparatus of agents increased steadily: from 68 informers and
agents in 1953 it reached 339 in 1958. The activities of the State
Security operational staff and agents against the Catholics in Bulgaria
were accompanied by severe administrative restrictions against the
priests who had remained free, coupled with fierce atheist propaganda
among all strata in society.
In the early 1960s, the communist regime in Bulgaria
deemed that it had consolidated its power and that it had placed
under total control the main sectors and mechanisms of public life.
That resulted in substantial cuts in the operational work and the
agent apparatus. Faced with the danger of becoming redundant, the
Third Division of the State Security played the Catholic card again
and tried to prove its public and operational significance with
something like a repetition of the trials in the early 1950s.
Several Catholic priests earmarked to become the
victims of that plan were hastily sentenced for “enemy propaganda”
and jailed for 2-3 years. In spite of that, on 6 October 1961, the
Third Division that left a not very long but blood-drenched history,
was dismantled. A part of its staff was transferred to the Second
Division (Counterintelligence), where the Clergy and Sects Department
was also transferred.
In the 1960s, the State Security intensified the
penetration of its agents into Catholic circles with a view to recruiting
agents to work abroad. Parallel with that, individuals with homosexual
aberrations were directed to the Catholic Church in the form of
candidates for priests, with the aim of achieving moral degradation,
discrediting and more reliable control by the services. In 1963,
all Catholic priests serving sentences in the prisons and in the
concentration camps were freed, some of whom were recruited as agents
At the end of 1967, a new structure was created
in the State Security, and was charged with conducting the fight
against the “ideological subversion of imperialism.” In addition
to the other lines of operation, the Catholic Church was also attached
to the newly established Sixth Division. At the end of the 1960s
and in the 1970s, the operational interest of the State Security
was directed predominantly at the Ostpolitik of the Vatican,
which resulted in a certain slackening of the pressure against the
Catholic clergy in the country and a relative activation of the
Church and religious life of the Bulgarian Catholics.
The election of Pope John-Paul II and the shaking
of the communist regime in Poland led to a sharp activation of the
repressive apparatus in Bulgaria in all possible directions, including
with respect to the Catholics. That last period in the fight of
the communist regime against the Catholic Church had two main aspects.
On the one hand, owing to the Ostpolitik of the Vatican,
the potential of the Catholic Church to exercise its functions was
partially broadened. The authorities even permitted the training
and the ordaining of several young Catholic priests, which would
have been unthinkable during the preceding period. At the same time,
however, the State Security mobilised totally its resources and
means, which was officially aimed at opposing the “ideological subversion”
of the West, while in actual fact it was intended for preventing
the occurrence of the Polish model in Bulgaria. This resulted in
a sharp swelling of the operational apparatus and agents. In 1981,
the Sixth division and its structures in the countryside had more
than 5,000 agents, 278 of whom had been recruited in connection
with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Catholics and the Protestant
denominations. Their number doubled by the end of the communist
regime in Bulgaria in 1989. The intertwining of these two tendencies
had and will continue to have a long-term impact on the development
of the Catholic Church in the country.
On 15 May 1998, Pope John-Paul II proclaimed in
an official ceremony at the St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome the beatitude
of the Bishop of Nikopol, the Passionist Evgeniy Bossilkov, as the
first step towards his canonisation as a saint. On 26 May 2002,
during the Pope’s visit to Bulgaria, he also proclaimed the beatitude
of the Assumptionists Kamen Vichev, Yossafat Shishkov and Pavel
Djidjov. The remaining Bulgarian Catholic priests who became victims
of communism are still awaiting their retribution.
Belovezhdov, G. Documents from the Trials
against Catholic Priests in Bulgaria in the 1950s. Sofia,
2001 (in Bulgarian).
Eldarov, S. Uniatism in the Fate of Bulgaria.
Stories from the History of the Bulgarian Catholic Church of
the Eastern Rite. Sofia, 1994 (in Bulgarian).
Eldarov, S. The Catholics in Bulgaria 1878-1989.
Historical Study. Sofia, 2002 (in Bulgarian).
Eldarov, S. Bulgaria and the Vatican 1944-1989.
Diplomatic, Church and Other Relations. Sofia, 2002 (in
Tsvetkov, Zh. The Crucifix. The judiciary arbitrariness
against prominent figures of the Catholic Church in Bulgaria
in 1952. Sofia, 1994 (in Bulgarian).
Translation into English: Nedyalka Chakalova
The International Condemnation
of Totalitarian Communism: the Initiative of the European People's
Party. The Bulgarian Perspective.
Excerpts from the reports presented
at the Colloquium in Koprivshtitsa (Bulgaria) 24-26 September 2004
Compiled by Vassil Stanilov, Edited by Nadejda Iskrova
Vassil Stanilov Literature Workshop, Sofia 2004