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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 July, 2004, 17:24 GMT 18:24 UK
Bulgaria rebel priests forced out
Bulgarian police have evicted dissident Orthodox Christian priests from dozens of churches across the country, which they occupied in defiance of the law.

The priests broke from the mainstream church after the fall of communism, saying the patriarch had been too close to the former authoritarian regime.

They have continued to function despite a law passed in 2001 which handed their property to the traditional church.

Several scuffles reportedly broke out during the eviction operation.

The move was condemned by a local human rights group, the Helsinki Committee, which called it church "unification by government decree".

'Like in Roman times'

"Some 25 churches have been closed," interior ministry spokeswoman Sonya Momchilova was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

The spokeswoman added that more could follow in the future.

The rebel priests disputed the numbers, saying many more churches were shut down around the country.

"We are a living church that is being persecuted, like in Roman times," priest Inokentii, one of the leaders of dissenting churches, told reporters.

The priests from the unofficial branch have been occupying about 200 churches and monasteries, after accusing the Patriarch Maxim of Bulgaria's Orthodox Church of being illegitimately appointed by the late dictator Todor Zhivkov.

The dissidents have continued to operate as a rival organisation, earning money from rental income and collections, and also from providing services like weddings and christenings.

Bulgaria's 1,100-year-old Orthodox Church has witnessed a revival in recent years.



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