Struggles in Bulgaria through two World Wars and Communism

. 5 min read

This story is of personal importance to me. My grandmother spent her childhood in Sofia, Bulgaria, where her father was a church planter and district superintendent for Methodist Church between the World Wars. She went to school in Constantinople and eventually ended up meeting my grandfather (son of an Estonian immigrant) in New York City. One of her last projects, unfortunately unfinished, was to tell the story of missionaries who had been arrested in Bulgaria.

By Ginny Whitehouse
May 2018 | SHUMEN, Bulgaria (UMNS)
The Rev. Bodjidar Popov opened an envelope and pulled out a
black and white, ruffled-edge photo of his father, Simeon Popov, preaching from
a pulpit in Shumen, a pulpit the father and son would later share.
The Rev. Simeon Popov survived both world wars, Soviet
takeover of his country and nearly six years in prison work camps. He lived
long enough to convene Bulgaria’s first meeting of “survived Methodists” in
1990 after the fall of communism. Only three Bulgarian congregations remained
in their own church buildings through the Cold War.
Now 85, Bodjidar Popov is just younger than his father was
when he died. He lives in the small apartment he once shared with his wife, Spaska,
surrounded by the chocolates his daughters send him from Switzerland and the
new editions of his father’s books.
Popov leaned back in his chair and spoke through his
translator, the Rev. Jessica Morris-Ivanova, who now co-pastors the Shumen
United Methodist
Church with her husband.
“I want to start with the year 1937,” Popov said. He also
shared a booklet about his father’s story that was written by the Rev. Bedros
Altonian, who grew up in Shumen.
That was the year his family moved to Voyvodovo for his
father to serve a church just south of the Danube and the Romanian border.
Three-quarters of the town were Czech Protestants who had fled persecution.
Bulgarians had invited the sturdy, hard-working farmers to repopulate the
borderlands and the town boomed to 800. Bodjidar — whose name means “God’s gift”
— was 5 years old and the youngest of three children.

His father led the largest of the three churches in the
In the years that followed, Bulgaria was pressured to join
the Nazis in World War II. Soon after, the Allied bombing of the capital began.
The mission board of the U.S. Methodist Church had been funding many pastors’
salaries. The Popovs’ church was a mission community and with the war underway,
their access to funds was cut off in 1942.
Simeon Popov called the family together and they decided to
cash in a small life insurance policy, then use the money to buy two cows and a
plow and become farmers, like their Czech church members. The
church taught them how to survive.
“We lived in a primitive way,”
Bodjidar Popov said. “We had a wood stove but there wasn’t wood in the village.
We burned sod from the fields, we would burn the shafts of wheat.”
By 1947, the Soviets had come and
Bulgaria became communist. The villagers made almost everything they needed
themselves and turned over a portion to the state.
One year with a particularly poor harvest, the Popovs’
hillside land produced even less then their neighbors. Simeon Popov was told he
would be required to turn over his entire crop.
“I said, ‘What are we going to eat?’ My mother said, ‘I am
not going to give it away.’” But his father insisted because pastors were
already being arrested. “My father said, ‘If we don’t give them the wheat, they
will take me and throw me into prison anyway.’”
Word spread amongst the village’s 200 homes that the
pastor’s family was without bread. The Popovs would wake in the morning to find
bags of wheat left in their yard at night.
“We had wheat, not just enough for food but also enough to
sow for the crop,” Bodjidar Popov said. “Like the widow in Elijah … she said
this is the last wheat and oil. Elijah said to make the bread, and so she did.
We’ve experienced these biblical stories that have been true reality in our
In 1949, the Bulgarian communists cracked down on religious groups.
Church members’ farm equipment was confiscated. A man who ran a small meat-packing
plant and had donated oil for the church’s petroleum light was beaten in jail
and his property taken. But the community banded tightly together.
“The faith in God connected us.
Whoever was in need, we helped,” Bodjidar Popov said, relating how neighbors would
collect donations for those in need.
Communist leaders decided to break
up Christian communities by going after church leaders. Simeon Popov was
working in the fields when the local militia came. They tore apart his house and
took him to jail.
That summer, Simeon Popov was put on
trial for being a spy and telling government secrets. His wife, Elsa, was
horrified to see her husband visibly shaking, then pleading guilty to all
charges. Nearly all the pastors pled guilty, including the Rev. Yanko Ivanov, the
Methodist district superintendent for Bulgaria, who received a life sentence.
The pastors’ families could not
understand why the men would plead guilty, Bodijar Popov said. But the
superintendent’s son explained that while his father had held off despite
repeated beatings, he relented when the militia brought in his wife, beat her
and threw her into the next cell, where he could hear her weeping.
Throughout the country, nearly every pastor who had
trained abroad was imprisoned. Simeon Popov, who had studied at a Bible college
in Switzerland where he met his Swiss wife, was sentenced to six years and six
months hard labor. Every two days he worked counted as three days toward his
sentence, allowing him earlier release.
But Bodjidar Popov said his father
kept faith in God.
“My father was waving his hand at
me, ‘God will not forsake us. Do not worry.’ I was so disappointed and
discouraged,” he said.  
After Simeon Popov’s release, he eventually moved to his
hometown of Shumen and began preaching around the country. He was chased out of
the capital by city officials who threatened him never to return, so he began
writing collections of his sermons and other Christian books. They were
published outside the country with no author listed.
In the late 1970s, Communist Party
officials strategized to more subtly remove the influence of Protestant
churches while maintaining tight control of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church
leadership. The Rev. Margarita Todorova, a United Methodist pastor and church
historian, unearthed documentation after the fall of communism that laid out
plans to force church mergers, confiscate funds for trumped-up financial
irregularities and eliminate church properties from public view.
A large international hotel was proposed next to the Shumen
Methodist Church, she found. According to a 1982 report from the
Ministry on Foreign Affairs, p
arty officials feared the church, which
had been built just after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, “could
become a place visited by foreigners staying at the hotel which in itself could
stir up and stimulate the church activity.”
Simeon Popov was offered remote space
on the far side of town for his church, but countered that the existing building
was owned by foreign mission boards who would protest and embarrass the country
if the land was confiscated. After many appeals to the municipal and national
authorities, the property was declared a historic site that could not be
Bodjidar Popov had been working as an
electrical technician in a theater company and his wife, Spaska, was a German
teacher in central Bulgaria when Simeon Popov had a heart attack. Bodjidar had
sometimes preached for his father and was asked to take his father’s pulpit
while he recovered. It was August 1989, just three months before the Berlin
Wall fell.
That spring, a frail Simeon Popov convened the Bulgarian Provisional
Conference meeting. The pictures of him leading the prayer and blessing the
communion bread are among that last ever taken of him, his son said. He died
not long after his birthday in October.
Bodjidar Popov was commissioned to pastor the Shumen church
where he served for nearly two decades. He said his last life mission is to get
new editions of his father’s works — now bearing Simeon Popov’s name — into the
hands of Bulgarians. He delivers them to public libraries and churches.
Whitehouse is a professor of Broadcasting and
Electronic Media at Eastern Kentucky University and a Fulbright Scholar
studying at Sofia University in Bulgaria.
News media contact: Vicki
Brown, Nashville, Tennessee, (615) 742-5470 or To
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