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Exarch Iosef I (1840-1915)
Diplomacy under the sign of the cross

He was the first head of the autocephalous Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church from the liberation to World War I. He asserted the right of the Bulgarian exarchate to control Bulgarian churches and schools not only within the newly liberated Bulgaria, but also in Macedonia, and the Edirne region in Thrace, which had remained under Turkish domination. To that end, the seat of the exarchate remained in Constantinople to the end of the Second Balkan War (1913). Exarch Ioseif was born in Kalofer, studied law in Paris, became an honorary member of the Bulgarian Scientific Society (today's Bulgarian Academy of Sciences) and was awarded the highest Bulgarian, Turkish and Russian decorations. He died in Sofia.

"It would have been much better for me to die in Istanbul in early 1913 when the Bulgarian army was at Catalca, right by the walls of Istanbul, and when many people, including eminent correspondents of European newspapers, were asking for my calling card so that they could gain access to the ceremonies of the arrival of Bulgaria's tsar in Istanbul and his coronation in Hagia Sofia."

When Exarch Iosef I spoke those bitter words, it was still the year 1913, but the month was November. He, the head of the Bulgarian exarchate, had been forced to leave his traditional seat in the Turkish capital. He also had to give up all acquired bishoprics in Macedonia and the region of Edirne, and to withdraw his bishops from the area. For 36 years Exarch Iosef I, acting as "the sole representative of united Bulgaria as defined in the San Stefano Treaty", had directed from Istanbul the building of an all-embracing spiritual "state" within the natural ethnic boundaries of the Bulgarian language and consciousness. His presence in the capital of the Turkish Empire showed clearly to the world that there were Bulgarians beyond Bulgarian borders whose liberation had not been completed. Exarch Iosef's "state" was larger that the formally recognised Bulgaria. Throughout its history it was something unique, as were its goals and achievements, joys and griefs.

A graduate of the Sorbonne, Lazar Yovchev had a rapid career as a priest ender the name of Iosef, and was appointed as a metropolitan bishop of the Lovech bishopric at the time when the April uprising was put down with unprecedented savagery. From the very beginning, the "diplomat in cassock" whose life was "a programme, a mapped-out plan into which he had withdrawn as if in a mental fortress" operated in other dimensions, with goals far exceeding the immediate needs of the moment. The major event in his personal life, his election as an exarch, coincided with the beginning of the Russo-Turkish War. To the Bulgarians that was a war of liberation but to Iosef it meant the expulsion of Bulgarian priests from the bishoprics obtained under a Sultan's firman of 1870, and the closing down of Bulgarian schools in Macedonia and the region of Edirne. In a word, it meant disaster, and would send many achievements back to the starting point.

A day after his election to the high office, after he was received by Sultan Abdulhamid II, the new Bulgarian exarch wrote in his diary: "I have formulated a clear policy to pursue as a religious head of the nation, towards the nation itself and towards the Turkish government". His ultimate goal was to return to the Bulgarian church and the Bulgarian community the originally Bulgarian bishoprics with their churches and schools, priests and teachers, including thirteen in Macedonia, two in the region of Edirne and three in Eastern Rumelia.

With unmatched diplomatic skill, picking his way through "scorpions and vipers in the nest of political intrigues", Exarch Iosif succeeded in regaining the bishoprics of Skopje, Veles, Bitola, Strumitsa, Debar and Nevrokop. Iosef's tactic was simple: "I will keep asking, again and again. Until they give in." Thus, by the time of the Balkan War he had added to his "great" Bulgaria a total of sixteen bishoprics in Macedonia and the region of Edirne as well as 20 church/school communities.

He was alone against all. Even the head of the Bulgarian state and the government were against him. He felt alone even among his own adherents. "The church is in disorder, it has neither enlightened priests, not a policy of its own. The tsar cares little about its structure, and the parties care even less," he wrote. The more strenuous the effort he put into his cause, the faster his achievements collapsed. For reasons of political conjuncture the bishopric of Skopje was turned over to the Serbian church with astonishing quickness and ease.

Even before 1913 Exarch Iosef was aware that he was building on sand. An "impressive statesman", as Konstantin Irechek described him, his policy included more than just church and religious objectives. He was an opponent of both Tsar Ferdinand's pro-German orientation and of the Russian Ambassador Zinoviev who was to blame for the loss of the Skopje bishopric. He dreamed of seeing Bulgaria saved through the joint effort of the church and the schools, "combining to produce highly educated citizens of strict upbringing". He dreamed of a country of "enterprising, wealthy and patriotic people" where the administration "would not be a ruler but a loyal servant to the people". However, he was perfectly aware how little his dreams had to do with reality, and at the end of his life admitted that they might never come true.

{Spiritual Leaders of Bulgaria}

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