Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Church Newspaper, Holy Sinod, influence of new media on religious practices, Internet, Internet for religious purposes, Online missionary activities, online worship, Orthodox Church, Orthodox religion in Bulgaria, religion, religiosity, religious information online, religious online communities, religious practices in Bulgaria
Abstract: This article presents data analysis and information on the use of Internet for religious purposes in Bulgaria. The article focuses mainly on the Eastern Orthodox Church. The methodology includes use of international data bases (values surveys) and data obtained by web-analytics tools. The topic is discussed in the context of the following issues:
1. Religion and religiosity in Bulgaria.
2. The Christian church and its attitude to the Internet and new technologies.
3. How many people in Bulgaria use the Internet for religious purposes
4. The influence of new media on religious practices in Bulgaria
Please, cite this article as: Ambareva, H. (2013). The Use of the Internet for Religious Purposes in Bulgaria. In: B.Todorova (ed.) “The Balkans as Reality” (pp. 100-118). Sofia: Publishing House “St. Ivan Rilski” – UMG.
Religion and religiosity in Bulgaria.
The last census of the Bulgarian population by religion was done in 2001. According to the collected data 83% of the population professes the Eastern Orthodox faith, 12% are Muslim, 0.6% Catholic, and 0.5% Protestant. There are also small communities of the Armenian Orthodox Church (Gregorian Church) and Jews. Nearly 4% of the population does not specify their religion. According to the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria the Eastern Orthodox Church is the main religion of the country with a century-long tradition.
What are the Bulgarian religious life specifics underlying the numbers?
The author of this article is a Bulgarian, not an exception from the majority of other Bulgarians who even if baptized in church are practically not educated in religion. The majority (40%) of Bulgarians attends church service two or three times a year, 24% of the population practically never attend church and about 20 % attend church once a year or less. Most of the Bulgarian population have never read the Bible, don’t follow specific religious prescriptions in life and don’t know a single prayer. In Bulgarian society religion and religious institutions are separated from the educational and political system. However, religious holidays are celebrated as national holidays and it is possible to suggest that they are understood, like social and cultural events, as sacred ones. At Palm Sunday, Easter, St. George’s Day and Christmas, there are many people attending Church service although it is not associated with strong religious feelings. There are also many Bulgarians who follow some of the important religious traditions (feasts for example) and celebrate the biggest religious holidays but they do not attend church service and are only superficially educated in the specific principles of worship or metaphysical teachings of Christianity – creationism, proof of the existence of God, etc. Christian moral laws are embedded in the Bulgarian legal system and generally associated with the universal human morals. On this ground the ethical and behavioural norms of other religions (e.g. Islam) are an obvious mark of the difference between the representatives of both religions and this mark contributes to re-discovering one’s own identity as Christians for many (ethnic) Bulgarians.
This situation could be summarized in the conclusion that Bulgarians have their religious identification, but their religiosity is not strong. This is why, according to the surveys in 2012, 28% of the respondents claim they are “not a religious person” against 59% who say they are religious. It is noteworthy that only 2% percent of all the respondents say they are firm atheists.Why is this the case?
Although not active and firm believers, many Bulgarians will admit they share some metaphysical and superstitious beliefs. This, for example, includes the belief that 1) there must be a retribution for what one has done in life; 2) there is a kind of “fairness” that keeps the balance between good and bad in life; 3) what happens is not accidental (there is destiny); 4) afterlife exists; 5) premonitions about the future are possible which keeps alive the half-entertaining, half-superstitious practices of soothsaying; 6) magic could help solve a personal problem. This kind of spirituality is a mix of traditional religious beliefs, (metaphysical) fear and superstitions. It is far from Orthodox Christianity but sometimes it is mixed with it and is used (by practitioners of soothsaying and magic and by some Roma people with the clear purpose to deceive people for money.
According to the “Global index of religiosity and atheism” the richer and more prosperous a country is, the less religious its population becomes. The majority of Bulgarians are too far from feeling prosperous and wealthy and this explains the very low rate of 2% of firm atheists. On the other hand, for nearly 60% of respondents religious spirituality is something important, but the very concept of God is very broad. A survey shows that for the majority of people in Bulgaria the Christian religion and institutions are not considered a source of help and support when a person faces moral, family or social problems. To the same question in Romania and Poland nearly 70% of respondents say the Church is a source of support in family life problems. Between 60% and 80% of Poles and Romanians, respectively, say that the Church is a source of moral support. Around 40% of respondents from Romania and Poland agree that religion gives answers to social problems against 80% of Bulgarian respondents who say it does not. This underestimation and exclusion of religion from the most important aspects of human life is an indicator that for many Bulgarians the connection between religious feelings and Christian institution as an authority has been suspended. This happened as much in the years of the totalitarian regime as in the years of democratically elected governments– due to the cultural and moral crisis, the lack of pastoral or missionary activity, and the non-religious character and influence of the contemporary global popular culture.
The Christian Church and its attitude to the Internet and new technologies.
Many times in the course of history new ideas and inventions have been met with opposing opinions by religious institutions. Approval and denial are expected reactions to innovations that bring change to life- style and thinking. Television, the press, the computer and the Internet brought about enormous changes in the way people get informed, influenced, educated and entertained. The power of the media has grown because of the large audience it is able to reach in various locations and at various times, and because of the influence it exerts on the human mind.
The official position of the Vatican about new media and the Internet is expressed on the web-site of the Vatican. Media is “an outcome of the historical scientific process by which humanity “advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation”. The media is a “gift of God”, which, in accordance with his providential design, unites men in brotherhood and so helps them to cooperate with his plan for their salvation”. Media contributes “to spiritual enrichment in many ways”, calls attention “to authentic human needs, especially those of the weak, the vulnerable and the marginalized”.In his message in 2000, Pope John Paul II also said that “in praising the Lord, the Church must make energetic and skilful use of its own means of communication – books, newspapers and periodicals, radio, television, etc., while Catholic communicators must be bold and creative in developing new media and methods of proclamation. However, as much as possible, the Church also must use the opportunities that can be found in the secular media.”There is no conflict between new media and the Christian faith. This is very clear in the position of the Vatican. In 1997 Pope John Paul II went as far as to proclaim St. Isidor of Seville as patron saint of the Catholics in their proper use of the Internet.
The Orthodox Church around the world is also actively using the opportunities the Internet offers to spread the Christian religion and to reach the people. In 2001 archbishop Alexander of the Russian Orthodox Church declared that their main task is the promotion of Orthodox-Christianity-related information and sources on the Internet. The web-site of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church says that the Orthodox churches around the world have their own web pages which bring them closer to people’s lives and “reveals the universality of Orthodox Christianity and the various forms in which, with God’s blessing, it exists in different parts of the world.”
In the same way, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church does not forbid any kind of print or electronic media and deems that the Church as a whole and any of its leaders and members could use all kinds of media, providing they follow the principles taught by Apostle Paul: “but test them all; hold on to what is good” (Thessalonians 5:21 (NIV)). People should use media considerately; they should keep to the moral and to what can bring salvation to their soul and body and society as a whole.
There is no censorship, content filtering or ban on the use of any kind of media technology in Bulgaria based on religious grounds. Yet, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church declares as improper media content which is considered harmful for the nation and the individual and contravenes the basic moral laws. This includes:
- Images of violent acts
- Erotic or pornographic images, media encouraging prostitution
- Expression of intolerance and hatred to people of different racial, religious, ethnic origin
- Teaching relativism of moral values
- Disrespectful attitude to Church and religiosity
- Lies, slander, manipulation of information in the media, bad language
Pornography and violence in the media is of great concern not only to the Christian church. Islam is even much more conservative. Saudi Arabia, for example, is known for the censorship and filtering of web-access to many web-sites, mostly with pornographic and erotic content. The related Catholic Church position is expressed in a pastoral response: it says that pornography and violence depicted by the media are “violations of human dignity, human rights and Christian values and ideals”. They are considered harmful for young people and children, the group most vulnerable to being influenced by the messages in the media. In this sense the media is explained to be a means which some “individuals can use… in a manner contrary to the commandments of the Creator” and can be converted “into instruments of evil”. Both Christianity and Islam are very critical of erotic, pornographic images and violence.
With the increase of Internet use on a global scale, antireligious propaganda also obtains an opportunity to strengthen its network online. Concern, expressed by representatives of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, is the distortion of the words of the Gospels and misinterpretations of the life and death of Christ in popular movies or books (resp. “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Da Vinci Code”). On the website of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is published a short list of anti-Christian titles.
Another challenge comes from the numerous Christian sects and other cults which gain visibility by means of the Internet. As of 1 October 2001 there were 31 registered religious organizations in Bulgaria including the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The number of registered religious organizations as of 4 January, 2010 is significant: according to the Bulgarian National Trade Register this number is 1,310. Among them are: Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hinduist sects, Islamic sects, Satanism, Hinduistic-Christian sects (New Age, Scientology), Danovism – “White Brotherhood”, and many others. Some of these organizations have very well developed web-sites and use audio-visual media to attract, persuade, and support their followers.
In this quite complicated situation a significant challenge raised by the television, press and Internet to the authority of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church seems to be the critical attitude to the deeds of the members of the Church. The Church and its teachings are not cherished, nor protected in public media and as a rule the Church is regarded as a secular institution, without the due respect for its sacred meaning and authority in the sphere of values and spirituality.
The critical public attitude to the Church, religious sects and cults, antireligious propaganda, and immoral and non-spiritual attitude, presents some of the subjects of reproach and deprecation, expressed in religious materials and religion-related publications.
How many people in Bulgaria use the Internet for religious purposes?
45% of Bulgarian households have access to the Internet. Among the National Statistical Institute surveys there is no specific study of how many and how much people use the Internet with religious purposes. Web-statistics show that in the top 500 (both international and national) web-pages most popular in Bulgaria, there is no website with religious content. The online catalog of “Orthodox Christianity” lists 137 web-sites in the Bulgarian language, hosted in Bulgaria, that have religious purposes. Included are websites of organizations of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, web-sites of Bulgarian monasteries and churches, websites for tertiary religious education in Bulgaria and websites disseminating news and Eastern-Orthodox-Christianity-related materials; one web-site presents a TV course with educational materials for children; however traffic information is not available. The traffic for the following three Bulgarian religious sites, as registered by web analytics, is about 200-500 visitors a day. Traffic increases around large religious holidays or events, so the following table can show different numbers in different periods .
|Website||Daily visits||Monthly visits||Visitor profile|
|1. Official web-site of the Holy Sinod and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church: www. Bg-patriarshia.bg||231 – 489||14,670||45-54, predominantly male, with children|
|2. Website “Doors to Orthodox Christianity”, created with the blessing of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church: http://www.dveri.bg/||577||17,310||45-54, with children, no big difference men-women|
|3. “Church Newspaper”, official newspaper of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church: http://synpress-classic.dveri.bg/index.htm||120||3,672||N/A|
|4. The Orthodox religion in Bulgaria, a catalogue of Orthodox resources online: http://www.pravoslavie.bg/||441-673||20,190||More male and people between 18-34, without children|
There is detailed analysis of the traffic of the website of “Church Newspaper” since 2002, when the newspaper went online. The number of users has grown from about 14 people per day in 2002 to 273 in 2007. After 2007 there is a decline in the number of users, and in 2012 it reaches 104 visitors per day. At present 65 % of the visitors are from Bulgaria and Europe. As the statistics shows, there are many people not living in Bulgaria who are interested in the newspaper and subscribe to the mailing list on the “Church newspaper” website. We can only guess that many of the Bulgarian readers belong to the church clergy or are professionally related to it.
Although it is not possible to say how many Bulgarians use the Internet for religious purposes in Bulgaria, it is a fact that the trend in Internet usage for religious purposes in the country is getting more pronounced. This increase could be explained by the growing Internet penetration among the population and by the development of a tendency to look for religious information and religious-experience-related communication online. Around 2002 there were only about 20 web-pages with Orthodox religious content in Bulgaria that were professionally done and not anonymous. There is no data about the traffic at that time. At present the number of web-pages has grown and the traffic is more active.
The analytic from Google Trends gives information on how often the keyword “Bulgarian Orthodox Church” is used in the search engine. It can be seen the searches are done irregularly and there are peaks in keyword search around two big holidays – Easter and Christmas. There are also peaks in October when the celebration of the St. Dimitar’s day takes place and in August when the Holy Virgin Mary’s Day is celebrated.
After 2009 the searches become much more regular. Actually in 2009 the present design of the web-site of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was created. The other existing websites have also improved their design and enriched their content since then.
Except for the development of the cultural habit of looking for religious resources on the Internet, Google analytics show one more thing. Many searches with the keyword “Bulgarian Orthodox Church” are registered in the United States. They are marked in blue in the “location” analytics. There is no additional information about the geographical distribution of the searches (for example – Bulgaria), but these results draw attention: the USA is one of the countries with the highest number of Bulgarian immigrants – around 300,000 (the same number as in Turkey and Greece). The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, just like most of the autocephalous Orthodox churches around the world, is a national church and for this reason being related to it reinforces the feeling of national identity for many Bulgarians, especially outside the country where more than 2 million people live. It can be expected that part of them use Bulgarian websites for religious information.
What is the influence of the Internet on religious practices?
The most common types of online religious activities described in the research of religion and the Internet are: looking for religious information online, participating in online worship or rituals (e-prayer, virtual pilgrimages), online missionary activities and joining religious online communities. How these forms are present in Bulgaria?
Looking for religious information online
At present, in Bulgaria, the use of Internet with religious purposes has various expressions. As demonstrated in the web content, it is used: 1) to disseminate official information and official documents of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church; 2) to share teachings, moral, and sacred texts of Orthodox Christianity; 3) to present information or news about events, places, etc.; 4) There are many private Christian bookshops that offer free download of Christian sect books or advertise free books. These bookshops are also advertised on different web-sites such as Vimeo, Vbox7.com, YouTube and Facebook. Some religious organizations are very actively taking advantage of audio-visual media and the Internet to present their materials. 5) There are several journals publishing articles on religious topics and some of the articles are available (in part or in their entirety) online. Some of these are “Svet”, “Christianity and Culture” and “Svetilnik” newspaper, which are predominantly oriented to Orthodox Christianity. There is a running project for digitization of the archive of the 19-th century Orthodox newspaper “Zornitsa”, started by the Institute for the History of Orthodox Christianity. 6) A project for a TV program about Orthodox Christianity is also advertised online.
Participating in online worship or rituals:
The fact that half (55%) of the population of Bulgaria does not have Internet access and the majority of Bulgarians rarely attend religious service (offline) hinders the development of local church web-sites towards offering on-line services for the local people. Non-traditional forms of religious activity such as worship in cyber-churches or on-line worship and rituals are still a game-like experience. These non-traditional forms of religious activities, which could include asking for e-mail pastoral advice, ordering prayer online or life-video streaming are also not cost-effective if offered to the very small religious congregations in Bulgaria.
Online missionary activities:
The presence of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church online and the use of the different channels (web, press, RSS feed, mailing-list, YouTube channel) creates some conditions for a new kind of pastoral activity.
|Use of online media||Use of traditional media|
The table summarizes the media channels used by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church -Bulgarian Patriarchate.
The Internet and new media reach a broader audience at home than the traditional pastoral activity could. Using Internet and media, the Orthodox Church spreads its messages, images, music, sermons, teachings and moral, and this virtual presence is available on demand 24 hours a day. Most probably, when used, the Internet is not a substitute, but an extension of religious education or experience. It provides sources of information when other sources are not available at the moment. In its true sense, no missionary activity has been implemented yet, but some pastoral activity is possible. This is true also for the influence of the different cults and sects, whose missionary activity relies mostly on meeting and communicating directly with people.
Joining religious online communities:
Online religious communities use virtual space where people meet via instant-messaging programs or exchange emails to communicate on matters of faiths. The form of community could be a Facebook group or forum and also a blog space with enabled comments. A kind of community is created on the Facebook page of “Christianity” TV program, which presents the teachings of one of the non-Orthodox religious organizations. It has over 800 subscribers and received nearly 8,000 “Likes”, but the comments and exchange of opinion are not active.
There are at present a number of personal “Orthodox blogs” but most of them do not include a “comment” function. However the YouTube videos in the official channel of the Bulgarian Patriarchy allow comments. (In comparison, the comments in the official channel of the Russian Orthodox Church are disabled.) The strong interest in these videos is notable in the Bulgarian context: some of them have been seen thousands of time.
Creating on-line communities with religious purposes does not seem to be an important part of the religious activity in Bulgaria at the moment. However, this, as well as the other types of religious activity online, marks a trend whose development could be studied further and deeper in the near future, when the main carriers are better manifested and features are clearly distinguished.
World Values Survey Online Data Analysis:Religion and Moral, V186.Selected countries/samples: Bulgaria . Retrieved on 23.10.2012 from http://www.wvsevsdb.com/wvs/WVSAnalizeQuestion.jsp.
 Global Index of Religion and Atheism (table 6, page 14). In: WIN-Gallup International Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism – 2012. Retrieved on 25.10.2012 from http://redcresearch.ie/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/RED-C-press-release-Religion-and-Atheism-25-7-12.pdf.
See: Global Index of Religion and Atheism. In: WIN-Gallup International Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism – 2012. Retrieved on 25.10.2012 from http://redcresearch.ie/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/RED-C-press-release-Religion-and-Atheism-25-7-12.pdf
 Pontifical Council for Social Communications, The Church and Internet. Retrieved on 24.10.2012 fromhttp://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/pccs/documents/rc_pc_pccs_doc_20020228_church-internet_en.html
 Pontifical Council for Social Communications, The Church and Internet. Retrieved on 24.10.2012 fromhttp://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/pccs/documents/rc_pc_pccs_doc_20020228_church-internet_en.html
 Message of The Holy Father John Paul II for the 34th World Communications Day , “Proclaiming Christ in the Media at the Dawn of the New Millennium”, [ Sunday, 4 June 2000]. Retrieved on 24.10.2012 from: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/messages/communications/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_20000124_world-communications-day_en.html.
Kelly, B. (2010). Patron Saint for the Internet, Isidore of Seville. Retrieved on 24.10.2012 fromhttp://catholicism.org/patron-saint-for-the-internet-isidore-of-seville.html
Спирова, П. “Въ-църковяването на интернет.”Retrieved on 24.10.2012 from: http://synpress-classic.dveri.bg/09-2004/9-vacarkovyavaneto.htm
Поместни православни църкви (Autocephalous Orthodox Churches) in the website of the St. Sinod – Bulgarian Orthodox Church.Retrieved on 6.11.2012 fromhttp://www.bg-patriarshia.bg/index.php?file=located_church.xml.
 By materials of an e-mail Interview with D. Panayotova, PhD, Main editor of the official web-site of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and Expert in the Cultural Department of the Holy Sinod (31 Oct. 2012).
Biblegateway.com. Retrieved on 6.11.2012 from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Thessalonians%205&version=NIV1984
 By materials of an e-mail Interview with D. Panayotova, PhD Main editor of the official web-site of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and Expert in the Cultural Department of the Holy Sinod (31 Oct. 2012).
 This information is based on materials of e-mail interview with D. Panayotova, PhD, main editor of the official web-site of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and Expert in the Cultural Department of the Holy Sinod (31 Oct. 2012).
 Pontifical Council for Social Communication, Pornography And Violence In The Communications Media: A Pastoral Response. Retrieved on 24.10.2012 from: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/pccs/documents/rc_pc_pccs_doc_07051989_pornography_en.html.
Pontifical Council for Social Communication, Pornography and Violence in the Communications Media: A Pastoral Response. Citing Inter mirifica, 2a.Retrieved on 24.10.2012 from: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/pccs/documents/rc_pc_pccs_doc_07051989_pornography_en.html.
 Report of Republic of Bulgaria in accordance to Article 25 , Paragraph 1 from the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Retrieved on 20.11.2012 from http://www.ncedi.government.bg/03rh091-pril.htm.
 This information is retrieved from a personal blog “Law and Religion in Bulgaria”on 20 Nov. 2012 from http://hpberov.blogspot.com/2009/12/2010_30.html.The Trade Register in Bulgaria is available for public on-line, but access to the data requires annual subscription of 15 000 euro, which practically denies the access of any citizen, investigating journalist or researcher to the information.
Тодорова, Г.Църквата през погледа на медиите. Retrieved on 11.11.2012 fromhttp://synpress-classic.dveri.bg/05-2002/medii.htm
 National Statistical Institute data base: “Internet access of the households”. Retrieved on 11.11.2012 from http://www.nsi.bg/otrasal.php?otr=17&a1=2405&a2=2406&a3=2407#cont
Alexa. The web information company: The top 500 sites in Bulgaria. Retrieved on 11/4-10/2012 from http://www.alexa.com/topsites/countries;19/BG. The rank of the web-sites is estimated by their one month Alexa traffic rank.
Alexa and Statscrop.com web analytics.
Спирова, П., Спиров, К., Българският православен интерне – настояще и бъдеще. Retrieved from http://synpress-classic.dveri.bg/07-2002/internet.htm on 22 Nov. 2012.
See Google Trends. Retrieved on 20.11.2012 from http://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=Bulgarian%20Orthodox%20Church&cmpt=q.
Web-site of “Tuk-tam”(“Here-There”) association. Retrieved on 27.11.2012 from http://www.tuk-tam.bg/2036092-bulgarians-live-abroad/
 National Statistical Institute data base: Access of the households to internet, 2011. Retrieved on 21 Nov. 2012from: http://www.nsi.bg/otrasal.php?otr=17&a1=2405&a2=2406&a3=2407#cont.
Please, cite this article as: Ambareva, H. (2013). The use of Internet for religious purposes in Bulgaria. In: B.Todorova (ed.) “The Balkans as Reality” (pp. 100-118). Sofia: Publishing House “St. Ivan Rilski” – UMG.