8 Christian Perceptions of Pomak Religious Life – Muslims and Christians in the Bulgarian Rhodopes.

8 Christian Perceptions of Pomak Religious Life

This chapter focuses on Christian perceptions of the religious life of Bulgarian-speaking Muslims. I choose the phrase “religious life” rather than “Islam” because my Christian respondents did not always identify the religious practices of their Muslim neighbours as Islamic; instead, they tended to view them as part of a broader spectrum interconnected with their own rituals and observances. By and large, my Christian respondents were not interested in Islam per se; in structural terms, they had no narratives about Islam comparable to narratives about Christianity as shared by my Muslim respondents (see previous chapters). Perhaps this is because the local Christians treat Pomak religious life as closely related to Christianity and not fully compatible with Islam. The Christians do not perceive the Pomak version of Islam as a threat to their own religion443, and therefore are not as motivated to validate their own beliefs or to negotiate444 their own religious identity.

When questioned in this ethnographic project, local Christians were only able to list a few selected religious practices of the Bulgarian-speaking Muslims, mostly those they had either witnessed personally or knew from second-hand reports, such as circumcision or Islamic holidays (Ramadan Bayram and Kurban Bayram). The local Christians think of those Muslim observances by analogy to Christianity but have no interest in what those practices might mean to Muslims at a symbolic level. It seems that the conviction, which many local Christians seem to share, that Pomak and “Christian” religious practices are closely interrelated, is based on an inflated sense of importance attached by Muslims to sleeping in Christian churches in a healing practice.

8.1  Stories of Healing and Muslim Behavior in Christian Sacred Places

Most of my respondents argued that the differences between Islam and Christianity were in name only: both groups worship the same God and accept the same holy book. This is how Christians account for the presence of Muslims in Christian sacred places, where they believe the two groups are united in prayer:

V.: We practice one and the same religion. Except they do it a bit differently. We all pray to one God. They call him Allah, “my God”. Other than that, we pray to the same [God]. (W, Ch, Interview 11, Osikovo 2005)

Y.: Listen. We call him God, they call him Allah. We believe in one and the same thing.

V.: We have the Virgin Mary, they have Miriam. (Women, Ch, Interview 28, Satovcha 2005)

My respondents realize that Muslims go on pilgrimages to Christian sacred places in the hope of healing. Some point out that Muslims only visit those places in desperate situations where any help is welcome. My Christian respondents have seen Muslims sleeping in churches in the area, including St. Anne’s church and St. Nedelya’s church in Garmen (not all my respondents agreed on that point), St. Dimitar’s church in Osikovo, St. Nedelya’s church in Satovcha and St. George’s church in Hadzhidimovo.

Muslims attend churches of St. George and St. Dimitar on both holidays (Gergiovden and Dimitrovden), as the two saints are often conflated in the popular imagination.

Christian observations of Muslim behavior in Christian churches tend to be compatible with behaviors self-reported by the local Muslims. They notice that some Muslims leave votive gifts next to icons depicting the Mother of God or St. George, and sometimes they light candles or kiss icons.

One female respondent reports that a female Muslim friend of hers always asks her to bring to church a gift she prepares for the Mother of God, hoping to ensure good health for her child. The Muslim friend prepares her gift every year on 15 August, the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God (Interview 27, Garmen 2006).

My respondents reported that Muslims who go on a pilgrimage to Krastova Gora in the Central Rhodopes perform similar gestures as Christian pilgrims; for instance, they place their clothes on the cross and leave them on it “for health”, or buy them back from the church for a symbolic sum:

M.L.: When I went there I saw that people leave their clothes on the cross?

Y.: Yes, the clothes. They leave them for health.

M.L.: They all do?

Y.: All of them.

M.L.: I mean, what I’d like to know is whether the Muslims leave them as well?

Y.: Yes. Muslims do that, too.

M.L.: They put clothes on the cross?

Y.: They put clothes on the cross and leave them there, and then …

V.: Then they can take them back.

Y.: If you like, you can donate 50 stotinki or a lev. You can donate more if you like, whatever you can afford. Then you can have them back. Practically speaking, you’re buying your clothes back from the church. You place the clothes on the cross, like you’re donating them. Then you leave the money in the cash till, however much you know in your heart you can afford, and you take your clothes back. (Women, Ch, Interview 28, Satovcha 2005)

Some respondents claim that the votive gifts left by Muslims are more generous than those left by Christians:

M.L.: What kind of gifts do they leave?

S.: Whatever they like.

M.L.: Clothes, kerchiefs?

S.: Lambs, sheep…

Mariana Darska: Even such valuable gifts?

M.: Yes, they’re more generous than we are, more hard-working and more generous, so they’re wealthier. (Woman, Ch, Interview 33, Garmen 2006)

My respondents note that Muslims never buy crucifixes or icons, and never make the sign of the cross:

M.L.: Do they kiss the icons?

M.: They do, yes. Not so long ago I saw them do that on the [Feast of the] Holy Spirit, they leave gifts like we do, they kiss the icons, but they don’t make the sign of the cross or light candles. (W, Ch, Interview 33, Garmen 2006)

Y.: Except they don’t make the sign of the cross. (W, Ch, Interview 28, Satovcha 2005)

S.: No crosses, though.

M.: No crosses. No lighting of candles. They just come and bow. (W, Ch, Interview 34, Garmen 2006)

The Christians never ask Muslims about the meaning of their behavior in Chrisitan church. Ignorant of their actual motivations, Christians often misinterpret the presence of Muslims in churches as evidence of their crypto-Christianity. Members of the Christian clergy take a different view. Archimandrite Grigoriy, a monk who works in the monastery in Hadzhidimovo445, explains that Bulgarian-speaking Muslims sleep in churches because their faith is “simple” and “pure”: in that simpleminded, God-fearing frame of mind they apparently believe the saint can produce healing, an expression of unexamined faith unconnected with a specific doctrine. The archimandrite believes that many Pomaks have no idea who the prophet Muhammad might be; they believe that St. George can produce healings, and they fail to realize that a saint can only work miracles in the name of God and Jesus Christ:

Archimandrite Grigoriy: There are people, especially among the Muslims, who don’t know how to pray, they don’t know anything. But they have this simple faith that Sveti Georgi is going to help. I’ve talked to them on many occasions. I mean, they don’t believe in God or in Jesus. They don’t realize that Sveti Georgi is a servant of God who once worked miracles in the name of God, in the name of Jesus Christ. But they have this simple faith that Sveti Georgi is going to help them. And very often this faith, this pure faith that they have, produces a healing. (Interview 27, Satovcha 2005)

The statement that Muslims do not believe in God is inaccurate: because the Muslim faith is not trinitarian and does not accept Jesus as the Son of God, the Archimandrite, based on his theology, concludes that Muslims have no religious belief at all. By concluding that Muslims sleep in the church of St. George in Hadzhidimovo because their faith is “simple” and “pure”, the archimandrite can conveniently overlook Islam as an autonomous and independent religion in competition with Christianity in the Western Rhodopes.

My respondents seemed to prefer treating Bulgarian-speaking Muslims as ignorant brothers in faith rather than as a distinct group well-aware of its separate religious identity. They mention many stories of Muslims healed in churches to boost the status of Christian sacred places. This might be which Christians often mention healings involving Muslims rather than Christians in a kind of implicit polemic with Islam, showing Christianity as truer and more potent. The logic seems to be that Muslims would not have to seek help from Christian saints (which even some hodzhas do) if Islam was indeed a powerful religion:

Archimandrite Grigoriy: But very often the hodzhas send people to us. In one case a hodzha came to the monastery in Hadzhidimovo … He came here and said, “I’m a hodzha, and we send many people your way when we can’t help them. Now I’m having problems with my knees. What can you do for me?” (Interview 27, Satovcha 2005)

Christian narratives mostly feature Muslim women healed of insanity (demonic possession) or muteness. A daughter of an Orthodox priest who spent three years working in the monastery of St. George in Hadzhidimovo told me three stories of Muslim women healed there (Interview 32). She heard those stories from her father, who worked in the monastery. The stories are very similar; below is a representative example, a story of Fatma, a mute woman suffering from insanity. Tied with ropes, Fatma was brought to the church by her father and brother. After one night spent sleeping in the church the woman was healed and her marriage was saved:

B.: There have been many miracles here. My father knew more of those stories, I only know two cases from him. He said … One day they brought in a woman, she was mad. They brought her here, tied her with ropes, they put her on a horse because she’d been trying to get away. She didn’t speak, nothing. They brought her into the monastery, and my dad put her up in the upper… there’s like this chardak [an enclosed verandah on the top floor of a house – M.L.] in the church. And he said, “Sleep here”. They made a bedding, prepared everything… “Your shift begins here”. She was brought in by her father and brother. Her husband had filed for divorce, he couldn’t stand [living with the sufferer]. And he [the respondent’s father] said, “Sleep here, take shifts watching over her to make sure she doesn’t get up and do some mischief”. They said, “Alright”… Early in the morning, when it was getting light, my father said, “Wait here, I’ll go and check on her” … “I go up”, he says, “and see that her father and her brother are both asleep. But she is awake”. And he says, “She stood on a floorboard, and it creaked”, he says, “and she said, ‘Grandpa Priest, what am I doing here? Why am I here?’. That despite the fact that she couldn’t speak before. She wasn’t making any sense before that. (W, Ch, Interview 32, Hadzhidimovo 2005)

To make sure that the woman was indeed healed, the respondent’s father asked her to go out in the field and fetch him three watermelons. Her relatives were upset, expecting the woman to run away.

My respondent’s stories replicate the same scheme: a Muslim man or woman sleep in a church, a saint (St. George, the Mother of God or St. Nedelya) intervenes by interceding to a miraculous effect, and the person wakes up in perfect health. The respondent’s father, a priest, is always the first person to witness the miraculous healing, and to verify it with a test. None of the healing narratives involve apostasy on the part of the healed Muslims.

Archimandrite Grigoriy mentioned two other stories in which people were healed merely by sleeping in a church (and not by prayer, because Muslims do not pray in Christian churches). The first story features a Muslim man healed of paralysis in 1952, the second, a Muslim woman from Dospat. The paralysed Muslim was taken to the church in a pannier carried by a mule; after spending one night in the church he got up early in the morning and walked home:

Archimandrite Grigoriy: The mule was carrying two panniers, one contained the man, the other was weighed down with stones as a counterweight. They called some people, and brought in a man who was completely paralyzed. And he [the man who told the story to the archimandrite – M.L.] asks his father and Father Trifon, who was there, why they’d brought him there. “So that St. George may heal him”. They left him in the church. In the morning, after a night’s sleep, he remembered the man and asked, “What happened to that man we carried into the church last night?” “He got up and went home early in the morning”. (Interview 27, Satovcha 2005)

The story about the Muslim woman from Dospat contains analogies to the story of Theopist’s oxen, a miracle story in which St. George plays a central part. The story is known from several dozen Greek manuscripts from the 12th-19th centuries. The earliest South Slavic versions446, much abbreviated from their Greek originals, were composed between the 16th and 18th centuries (Stoykova 1998, p. 30); perhaps a popular version of the story survives in the oral tradition. Orthodox Christian iconography features depictions of a similar miracle, in which St. George brings back to life an ox belonging to a farmer named Glykerios. In that scene447 St. George is shown in his cell while Glykerios is praying outside, his arms raised up and his eyes on St. George. Perhaps this iconographic depiction explains why the narrative of the oxen promised to, and rightfully claimed by, St. George (similar to the story of Theopist’s oxen) continues to exist in a modified form in the oral tradition of the Christian population in the Rhodopes.

In the archimandrite’s story, the husband of an ailing Muslim woman makes a promise to St. George to donate his best cow to the saint if the woman gets well (in the medieval story, Theopist promises to give his best ox to St. George if he helps him locate a lost herd). In both stories St. George grants help but never receives the promised animal. In the archimandrite’s story, St. George claimed the gift promised to him, and the man from Dospat was unable to find his cow; in the written source, St. George visits the man and demands a more generous gift (two oxen and a flock of sheep):

Archimandrite Grigoriy: I mean, we had a different case from Dospat, another Muslim woman who was very sick. Her husband went into a church and said, “Sveti Georgi, if you heal my wife I’ll give you the best cow I have”. Now, his wife left that church in perfect health, but the man forgot his promise. And what happened next? A week later his cow was gone; he searched for the animal, and finally he remembered his promise. Immediately he came to Grandpa Trifon, to the monastery, and said, “This is what happened. I made a promise and I forgot it”. And Grandpa Trifon said, “There’s a cow wandering around the monastery’s vineyeards, it’s been here for a week”, he says. “Go and check, maybe it’s yours” … That cow had spent the whole week in the monastery. The man left it here. Sveti Georgi took what was rightfully his. (Interview 27, Satovcha 2005)

But the saint was not content, and he expected the promise to be kept. Theopist sacrificed a sheep and a lamb but Sveti Georgi was not appeased. Again he appeared to Theopist in a dream and explained that the sacrifice did not reflect his high rank … He demanded not only the two oxen but also all of the sheep. Theopist told his wife that an unclean spirit had appeared to him in a dream, and told him not to keep his promise. Then Sveti Georgi appeared to him in a dream riding a white horse, with a cross in his hand, and he frightened Theopist with fire. Then Theopist ordered that all the animals should be killed. Sixty riders appeared and announced the approach of a komis [Latin comes – a military rank in the Roman army – M.L.]. And he did appear on a white horse, and said he knew that the sacrifice was the Sveti Georgi; his own name was Georgi and he was from Cappadocia. Then they all sat down and ate the prepared sacrificial meat. The guest took the bones of the animals and revived the sacrificial oxen. (Aufhauser, cited in: Stoykova 1998)

It is likely that the popularity of this belief is boosted by the iconography of St. George. In some cases one of the panels (kleima) containing scenes from the saint’s life features the scene in which St. George brings back to life an ox belonging to a farmer named Glykerios: in both cases St. George comes to the aid of a farmer, acting as his patron saint, an idea still current in the Rhodopes in beliefs about the saint.

My respondents also told stories of Muslims miraculously healed in other Christian churches in the region, such as the church of St. Petka in Leshten (no longer in use). According to one female respondent, the church was visited by a childless Muslim woman from Debren who heard a voice in a dream saying she would have a child if she brought a lamb to church as a kurban (votive gift):

D.: Take that woman, a Mahommedan woman from Debren, she had no children for 8-9 years. One day I saw her laden with two baskets, there was a lamb in one basket and loaves of bread in the other. She came to donate them to our church because of a dream. A Muslim woman! She had this dream: “Take a lamb, a small kurban, and take it to St. Petka in Leshten. And you will have a baby.” She brought that lamb, the priest said a prayer over it, and people had a chance to buy it. Kosta bought the lamb. A short time later she got pregnant, she gave birth to a boy and brought gifts to our village again. (W, Ch, Interview 38, Leshten 2006)

Sleeping in churches and monasteries was practised not only on the feast days of the given saint, but also on the night of Maundy Thursday. Until recently, Muslims reportedly participated in the practice in Satovcha:

G.: I mean, a while ago Christians and Muslims used to come to our church on Good Friday, and they made their bows. They would donate money, and even light candles in the church, they used to light them themselves. They went under the table. They went under the table as well. I mean, that’s on Good Friday, Razpeti Petk448, Good Friday, and the church bell rings until lunchtime. This is to worship Christ, and in the afternoon they take the table out [of the church].

M.L.: Why do people walk under the table?

G.: They do that for health. That’s what the old people in Satovcha say …. On Friday, Razpeti Petk, in the afternoon, everybody goes to the church, they bring flowers, it’s a form of praisegiving, right? And they leave those flowers on the plashchanitsa [epitaphios], on the table.

M.L.: So, until recently Muslims as well as Christians used to come to church for that?

G.: Yes, they did that for health until recently. I mean, to give praise. But Muslims mostly did it for health. They thought … I mean, people would also spend the night [in the church – M.L.] between Thursday and Good Friday. On Friday afternoon they bring out the plashchanitsa. And you spend the Friday night sleeping [in the church] for health, also those who have no children.

M.L.: Do people spend the night like this today?

G.: I mean, very few do.

M.L.: And Christians?

G.: Very few Christians spend the night there, either. That’s the trend, that’s what we’re seeing. (W, Ch, Interview 23, Satovcha 2005)

On Good Friday, explains the respondent, Muslims as well as Christians go crouching under a table placed before the central doors and covered with a plashchanitsa to take part in a traditional healing practice:

G.: Years ago, almost all of the Muslims who had made promises or who had health problems would come to church on that Friday. And they went under the table, people go under the table, which symbolizes the cross.

M.L.: What does it look like?

G.: This is what it looks like. The table is smaller than this rectangular table. A crucifix is placed in front of it, they place Jesus Christ on the cross in front of the table. On the table there is an icon of Jesus Christ, a crucifix and a Gospel, I think. People come and leave flowers on the table.

M.L.: Why?

G.: Again, that’s for health. (W, Ch, Interview 23, Satovcha 2005)

Another respondent corroborates this account, and affirms that the ritual is still practiced:

Y.: They put the plashchanitsa on the table, and in the evening they remove it and circle the church with it. You can squeeze through for health. Here you get Muslims coming to the church as well. People with sick children, people with illnesses, right? Elderly people. Everybody looks for a way to solve their problems. It’s the exact same story up there, in the monastery of Sveti Georgi (W, Ch, Interview 28, Satovcha 2005)

Some respondents deny this:

M.L.: Do Muslims ever go under the table, or don’t they?

S.: No, no. They look for the priest for other reasons, on their holidays. This is for Christians only. (W, Ch, Interview 54, Garmen 2006)

Archimandrite Grigoriy describes the practice of squeezing under the table as noncanonical, but admits that the clergy intentionally buy tables big enough for the faithful to crouch underneath. The archimandrite believes that the custom is based on a misinterpretation of a Maundy Thursday ritual in which people pass under a plashchanitsa held over the church door. According to the priest, this rite has no symbolic meaning; it is simply a practical solution for faithful to be able to worship the icon (by kissing it) after circling the church. Because there is widespread belief that passing under a plashchanitsa brings health449 for the coming year, those who did not do it on Maundy Thursday do it on Good Friday, when the plashchanitsa is spread on the table:

Archimandrite Grigoriy: I mean, this is on Friday, on Good Friday after the Royal Hours450, they bring out the plashchanitsa and put it on a table. When that happens, people start going under the table.

M.L.: Why?

A.G.: Why? I mean, the plashchanitsa symbolises the body of Jesus Christ, which was wrapped in a clean plashchanitsa [shroud], anointed with oils and placed in the tomb. So in the evening he is taken there, right, there is a solemn liturgy to commemorate Christ’s death, and a plashchanitsa is brought out and carried around the church. Then the Christians pass through, they kiss the plashchanitsa and walk under it. This symbolises the events which took place on Golgotha. The taking down of the body from the cross, the wrapping of the body in a shroud, the entombment. That’s because when the body was taken down from the cross it was wrapped up [in a shroud – M.L.] by Joseph and Nicodemus, the women and the Mother of God. I mean, he was wrapped in plashchanitsa and carried to the tomb. The liturgy says that the body was taken down from the cross, placed on the ground and wrapped in a plashchanitsa. That’s why it’s sprinkled with sweet scents in several places, symbolizing the myrrh which the women, the myrrh-bearers, used for anointing his body. Then you get the litiya451 around the church, when funeral songs are sung, “Holy God”, and the plashchanitsa is taken out of the church and the people circle the church, stopping at three points. Then there are the ectenias452, one for the living, one for the dead. And we pray. I mean, we stand at the two sides of the door, people hold up the plashchanitsa and then everybody files past to kiss it and to walk underneath it, you can’t [get into the church] any other way. They all kiss the plashchanitsa and walk under it. This symbolizes the fact that they kissed Jesus Christ before laying him in the tomb.

M.L.: This walking under the plashchanitsa, does it have any special meaning?

A.G.: No, this is simply a matter of practical necessity. The plashchanitsa is held up high so that everybody can come up and kiss it. There’s no table at this point.

M.L.: Because I think I’ve seen people walking under it?

A.G.: I mean, they only do that in order to kiss the plashchanitsa, because right afterwards the plashchanitsa will be placed on the altar, and the altar symbolizes, among other things, the Tomb of God in which God was resurrected. This [act of] carrying of the plashchanitsa and placing it on the alter symbolizes the entombment. So, to come back to what we discussed before, not everybody comes to the evening [service] to walk with it [in procession], they can only come [to church] during the day. They come whenever they can to venerate the plashchanitsa, to kiss it, to kiss the Gospel and the cross. Then they walk under it, they file through under the table. Over time this became a custom, a tradition. People come and they have to file through under the table. If this was an [official] church observance we [the clergy] would be the first to do that, to pass under the table. But this is not the case anywhere, no clergyman does that, that’s why we say it’s tradition.

M.L.: So it’s not just in Satovcha?

A.G.: No, this [passing under the table] happens in a lot of places453, they even order special tables to make it easier for people to squeeze through! (Interview 27, Satovcha 2005)

When asked whether he had ever seen Muslims participating in this practice, Archimandrite Grigoriy said he did not expect that to be the case, however he could not be sure because most young people do not wear traditional Muslim clothes and can be easily mistaken for Christians (Interview 27, Satovcha 2005).

Other respondents agreed that it was not always possible to spot the Muslims in Christian sacred places:

M.L.: Who comes to Krastova Gora, is it just Christians or others as well?

D.: It’s Christians. Well, you can’t really tell. Everybody wears the same clothes. Some of them could be Pomaks and Turks but...

M.L.: You mean, they don’t wear the shalvari?

D.: They wear dresses, skirts, same as us. (W, Ch, Interview 41, Garmen 2006)

Another healing practice identified by my Orthodox respondents involved leaving flowers on the plashchanitsa. The flowers are then distributed in the church on Easter at midnight to be kept in homes and, in times of misfortune or sickness, burnt with incense and used for fumigating homes or Christmas dishes on Christmas Eve. One of my female respondents said that Muslims also believed in the healing properties of the flowers and took them home, but did not use them as incense or get them from the church on Easter night since they never enter Christian churches at that time (Interview 23, Satovcha 2005).

Another Christian ritual in which Muslims reportedly take place is the kissing of the cross and the sprinkling of the body with holy water on Epiphany (Bulgarian: Yordanovden454). Archimandrite Grigoriy heard that from a man who escorted him when he was ministering to workers:

Archimandrite Grigoriy: I mean, when we do the vodosvet [blessing of water – M.L.] on Iordanovden, then you go and sprinkle all the houses, one by one, and all the apartments. Though in the larger towns you don’t know which houses are which, whether they are Christian or Muslim, so people make lists and sign up [for a visit] if they want. For several years I’ve been sprinkling holy water in the plant in Gotse Delchev. They have various workers there. I don’t know who is who because they all wear protective clothing. But then this man who was escorting me said, “Do you know how many of them were Pomaks, not just Pomaks but also Turks, and they all kissed the crucifix and sprinkled themselves with the holy water!” I didn’t know that, to me they were all workers. Some of them stood to the side, but most kissed the cross and sprinkled themselves [with holy water]. Later, some of [the others] wished they’d done that [too]. It brings healing, so why not?! And the man who escorted me around says, “Gee, they’re all coming and kissing the cross, Turks and Bulgarians alike!”. I never realized it because I didn’t know them [laughs]. (Interview 27, Satovcha 2005)

In the Orthodox Christian canon, both the adoration of the pleshchanitsa on Maundy Thursday and of the cross on Iordanovden are forms of worship of the crucified Christ. However, the magical meaning of such rituals as a healing practice, shared by the Christians and some of the Muslims in the Rhodopes, usually overshadows the religious meaning. In this and other places in the book, I referred to this as the magical meaning in the sense of a set of ritualized actions and techniques believed to produce desired outcomes in the real world by influencing the natural or supernatural powers present in nature455 (cf. Buchowski 1987, p. 218, translated from Polish).

8.2  Muslim and Christian Rituals

Most of my Christian respondents believed that the religious differences between Christians and Bulgarian-speaking Muslims were secondary and insignificant. Like many Muslims, they referred to the metaphor of the onion skin, in which the differences separating Muslims and Christians are like an onion skin, in that they obscure the fact that the two religions are identical in their deeper layers:

L.: You will agree with me child that everybody has a [certain] faith and believes in something. This is like a remnant of the times long gone. And people inherit that forever, child. It was born out of the Christian faith because we and they are one, with nothing but a thin onion skin separating us. (W, Ch, Interview 21, Ognianovo 2005)

A.: The difference between Muslims and Christians is tiny. Like the outer skin on an onion. You can find the things practised in the Bulgarian Bible among them in an almost unchanged form. (M, Ch, Interview 45, Dabnitsa 2006)

In some cases this metaphor becomes inverted: in the two religions the inside of the onion may be different but the outer layers are identical:

Y.: So, their religion is separated from ours… people say it’s like the inside of an onion, it has this thin skin, you only get this thin skin separating their religion from ours. (W, Ch, Interview 28, Satovcha 2005)

Importantly from the perspective of religious syncretism, some respondents attempt to identify the symbolic counterparts of their own rituals in the other religion. Baptism and circumcision are perceived as expressions of the same psychological and symbolic need to emphasize one’s religious identity in a religiously mixed environment. Paradoxically, the religious significance of the rituals is second only to the need to demarcate one’s religious identity: most of my respondents were unable to, indeed felt no need to, explain the meaning of their own religious observances456:

M.L.: So, do you know why [Muslims – M.L.] do their abdest and syunnet?

M.: Well, they practice syunnet, it’s like their law. They do syunnet to the children, and we baptize ours.

M.L.: Is that all?

M.: It’s the same thing. (W, Ch, Interview 42, Garmen 2006)

M.: Oh, we know why they circumcise [their male children]. A man said, “Dress me any way you like, that thing down there is circumcised”. It’s a religious sign. (W, Ch, Interview 33, Garmen 2006)

D.: I don’t know the traditions. They syunnet [circumcise – M.L.] the children. Instead of baptising them, they syunnet them. They circumcise them.

M.L.: Why do they syunnet them?

D.: It’s tradition, they circumcise them. Even in Zhivkov’s times, when it was forbidden, they used to circumcise them in secret. (W, Ch, Interview 41, Garmen 2006)

There are exceptions, discussed below, where circumcision is seen in terms of a way of accentuating religious difference. In common with many Muslims, some respondents believe that the chief point of the practice is hygienic. The first of the following two respondent connects the origins of the ritual with Muhammad, the second with figures from the Hebrew scripture-figures such as David or Solomon, rather than Abraham, and goes on to hypoethesise that the practice was introduced by the Jews in the desert to prevent high mortality from penis infections among male children:

A.: Yes, it’s compulsory among them. It’s been 1300 years since Muhammad made it compulsory to circumcise boys.

M.L.: I find that very interesting …

A2: It was in the times of David or Solomon when they agreed to make the practice compulsory.

M.L.: So, who was the first person to be circumcised?

A.: I’m not sure, but [the practice] persists among them. That’s because there were heatwaves for 100 years, when the Jews were expelled from, um… Whole generations lived in fear because boys under the age of five were dying, but not the girls. So they decided that everybody must get circumcised. Today there’s no need for that around here because we don’t get heatwaves like they do in Turkey next door. Not just in Turkey, but also in the Arabic countries, in the desert – it’s compulsory there. (Men, Ch, Interview 45, Dabnitsa 2006)

Other respondents posited circumcision’s health benefits:

H.: Why they get circumcised?

M.L.: Yes.

H.: I don’t know. Maybe they needed to keep very clean where that religion came from, because they had many epidemics caused by the heat. So the boys always had to be clean to avoid [health] problems. So this is how the ritual of circumcision began. (M, Ch, Interview 47, Garmen 2006)

The next respondent drew a comparison between baptism and circumcision in theological terms: baptism is an act of forsaking the simple life of the flesh in order to embrace spiritual life, whereas circumcision should symbolise a covenant with God. The respondent argues that circumcision is a legacy of Judaism, and its theological meaning was lost in Islam. According to the respondent, circumcision also increases the likelihood of procreation. Implicitly, the respondent’s comments involve a value judgement in that they equate baptism with spirituality and Islam with the body:

Protestant: The immersion in, and emergence from, water symbolizes the death of the worldly, sinful life of the body, and the coming out of the water symbolized resurrection and a new spiritual life.

M.L.: So, what’s the symbolic meaning of circumcision?

P.: In the Old Testament, circumcision is an attempt to bring fruit; it increases male sexual desire, so the new generation will be more bountiful... It’s also an act of covenant with God. Muslims today believe that it’s necessary for hygienic reasons because this spiritual truth is not so clear to them.

M.L.: Do they mention procreation?

P.: No, but that is the case. (M, ChP, Interview 46, Garmen 2006)

Most respondents consider baptism to be superior to circumcision for esthetic rather than theological reasons, and treat it as a marker of religious identity. Some believe that the act of sprinkling the child with holy water using a sprig of basil457, as in baptism, has the extra benefit of reducing body odour in sexually mature males. The respondents are convinced that they have less body odour than their Muslim neighbours (a problem commonly attributed to outside groups).

Other respondents believe that this olfactory effect is produced by anointing children with holy oils (Bulgarian: mirosvane):

D.: They don’t baptise [their children], Mohammedans don’t, and we do, to make them Bulgarians.

M.L.: I’ve heard [children] have a nice smell after they’ve been baptized?

D.: Well, yes, it’s true. They’re Christians now.

M.L.: And Muslims circumcise [Bulgarian: bryazhat] children, right?

D.: They do.

M.L.: Why?

D.: Well, to keep separate from the Bulgarians. (W, Ch Interview 38, Leshten 2006)

D.: They don’t baptise [their children], they circumcise them and make the kurban, whereas we baptize [children] and prepare a meal. We go and the priest anoints our children with chrism [Bulgarian: mirosva – M.L.].

M.L.: And that makes them smell nice.

D.: Well, yes. (W, Ch, Interview 38, Leshten 2006)

Another ritual which has the same esthetic and identity-building role and is practised by both religious groups is the rubbing of newborns with salt458. Each group believes that the custom is not known or practiced in the other group, hence the unpleasant body odour of its members459. The female Christian respondent quoted below tries to rationalize her prejudices to some extent by pointing out that Pomaks are only described as foul-smelling when relations between the groups deteriorate. The respondent believes that the problem has been solved with better hygiene because she has childhood memories of the unpleasant body odour of some Pomaks:

G.: I’ve heard that Christians sprinkled salt over them, like cured hams, to eliminate the body odour. People in these parts say… that’s a bit offensive to Muslims, but the Christians sometimes say, especially when they’re not on good terms with them, that they [Muslims] smell because they are not salted or sprinkled with basil sprigs.

M.L.: Who says that?

G.: Christians say that about Muslims. There used to be… There is this superstition that Muslims have a bad smell, the same as Gypsies, because they have this specific body odour. Though with today’s care products and advances in chemistry those problems have gone away, right? But in the past, when I used to visit my grandmother, there was one kind of smell about the place, and when I went to her neighbour, the smell was somehow different. When I was little I asked my mom, “Mom, why is it that granny’s place smells different than ours? I don’t like that smell”. And she said, “That’s because they’re Pomaks. They smell”. And nowadays, when there are quarrels or conflicts, when people get really rude and uncouth, they say, “You people smell so bad. You, Muslims, have a bad smell because you’re not salted, you’re not sprinkled with basil”. Sprinkled with basil, meaning baptized. (W, Ch, Interview 23, Satovcha 2005)

With the exception of baptism (consistently viewed as a counterpart to circumcision in Islam), such parallels between different rituals are inconsistent, viewed on a personal basis; my respondents did not always agree which Christian and Muslim rituals could be considered equivalent or why. The pairings were not motivated in theological terms, and some of them were theologically incompatible. For instance, the respondents quoted below regard Kurban Bayram and Easter as analogous even though the two holidays are predicated on two diametrically opposed understandings of blood sacrifice. The difference is fundamental and central to the nature of the two holidays: unlike Kurban Bayram, which celebrates and perpetuates the ritual of blood sacrifice as the best way to commune with God, Easter commemorates an event which abolished blood sacrifice as a ritual tainted by human influence.

The parallels drawn by the respondents between the two holidays are based on the fact that each is preceded by a period of fasting, even though the respondents realize the differences between Lent and the Ramadan:

Y.: We are not that different. The difference is that they go to the mosque to pray five times a day, and we only go [to church] on holidays. That’s the difference as I see it. When they have their bayram, we call that fasting, and don’t know what you call it.

Veselka: Except they eat absolutely nothing during the day.

Y.: They get up at five in the morning to eat, and then they eat again at seven in the evening. Throughout the day [they drink] no water and [eat] no food. We do that at Easter time, for one week. But we do it the other way around. For three days you eat nothing, and you drink nothing. Then we call it “the half” [polovinka], and on that night you eat, you pick a time, and tomorrow you [eat] again at the same time. And that’s the difference, there are no other differences that I’m aware of. (W, Ch, Interview 28, Satovcha 2005)

The two female respondents below consider Kurban Bayram and Christmas to be analogous only because both holidays are celebrated over a three-day period during which no farming is done:

M.L.: The word bayram, does it mean anything?

S.: To them it means a holiday.

M.: During the holiday they don’t work for three days.

S.: Our holidays last for three days, too. Christmas is celebrated over three days, so is Easter. Their bayram lasts for three days as well.

M.: They celebrate and they don’t work in the fields. “On this holiday we do no work”, she says, “none at all”.

M.L.: Do they work at Easter?

S.: They do, just like we work during their bayrams. (W, Ch, Interview 34, Garmen 2006)

Another frequent pairing of religious observances is the Orthodox All Souls’ Day460 and the Muslim Arfe, presumably because both groups on those days share special food with their loved ones and neighbours in the intention of the deceased. Christians share kolivo, and Muslims celebrate Arfe with mektsi,halva and banitsa.

The following (female) respondent compares All Souls’ Day not only to Arfe, but also to Ashure (Turkish: Aure, Arabic: ‘Ashura)461, the day on which Muslims share a kind of pudding made from various grains and fruits to ensure health and prosperity in the family. Perhaps the respondent was misled by the similarity between the Muslim ashure and kolivo, which Christians distribute to help the deceased. The two types of food are made of similar ingredients but have a different consistency:

S.: Only bayrams are holidays. Kurban Bayram and Ramazan Bayram. Arfe, which you eat before the kurbans – it’s [like] our All Souls’ Day. That’s when they make it. They cook rye, corn, prunes, dried apples. We call that ushav. They cook everything together in one pot and call it ayshero.

M.L.: Ashure.

Mariana Darska: Maybe they call it different things in different regions.

S.: And sugar.

M.D.: It’s like a dessert. Like the wheat we make for All Souls’ Day?

S.: Except theirs is more like soup; ours is thicker.

M.L.: When do they share that ashure?

S.: Before their holidays. Before Bayram.

M.L.: But it’s not the same thing as Arfe?

S.: No, Arfe is a different thing. At Arfe they make mektsi and banitsa. Whereas Ashure is closer to Kurban, it’s a specific date but I don’t know when it is.

M.L.: How is it shared?

S.: They pour it into bowls, and children take it to different houses, to their neighbours, relatives.

M.: Irrespective of one’s religion?

S.: No difference. When we lived there they always gave us some. (Ch, W, Interview 35, Garmen 2006)

The respondent only associates Ashura with the pudding distributed on that day, not realizing that Sunnis462 celebrate the holiday in memory of humanity’s rescue from the Flood, commemorating the thanksgiving meal in honour of Allah prepared from products463 remaining on Nuh’s Ark (Blagoev 2004, p. 143).

Another social practice found in both groups involves paying visits to women after childbirth, bringing various gifts for the baby, money or food “to keep the milk from drying up”. When leaving the house, members of both groups make sure to snap a piece of thread from their clothes to protect the newborn from “evil eye”.

Besides the similarities, my respondents also identify certain differences between the groups. One female respondent mentioned the Ramadan464 and All Souls’ Day as one such difference. Unlike most of my respondents, the woman found an interest in the differences between Islam and Christianity, and actually met with a hodzha to discuss them (Interview 21, Ognianovo 2005).

In total, I met just two more respondents who discussed religious topics with Muslims. Following a conversation with a hodzha, the following respondent concluded that fasting during Ramadan can only be validly compared to the fast preceding Easter:

A.: Yes. A certain hodzha made that very plain to me. The Ramazan (Turkish: Ramazan, Arabic: Ramadan) is meant to cleanse the body and soul, like our fasts. Like our Lent, because Zagovezni465 is a completely different matter. These serve to cleanse people of their sins. (M, Ch, Interview 45, Dabnitsa 2006)

My respondents were also willing to discuss Muslim burials, which they know from hearsay or from occasional personal participation, and which they like to compare with their own traditions. Most of all, they notice that Muslims bury their dead without caskets, shrouded in white linen, and that women do not accompany the body to the grave.

Christians in the Rhodopes usually have a limited and superficial familiarity with Muslim holidays. For instance, they know that the word bayram means holiday, and that Muslims only celebrate Kurban Bayram (the Holiday of Sacrifice) and Ramazan Bayram. They associate Kurban Bayram with animal sacrifice and the sharing of meat, and Ramazan Bayram with the eating of sweets after a period of fasting. However, they are oblivious of the connection between each holiday and specific religious beliefs.

M.L.: What do people put on the table at that time?

B.: Well, they make mektsi… I mean, that depends on the bayram. For Kurban Bayram they always make meat. But there is a different bayram, the candy bayram, or, as they call it, the sweet bayram. Then people make baklava466, things like that,tolumbichki467, sweet things. (W, Ch, Interview 51, Garmen 2006)

Christians tend to explain their own limited knowledge of Pomak customs by the fact that they live apart and have no opportunities to observe Pomak religious life at first hand. The following respondent, who realizes that Pomaks have certain customs but admits ignorance about the details, sounds like she is talking about some kind of distant ethnic group rather than her neighbours, with whom she worked in the fields and held sedyanki468:

D.: They have their customs, but I don’t know what those might be. We’re not close enough. We had friends, we used to visit them, they used to visit us, we harvested tobacco, corn together. But their ways are similar to ours. When the sedyanka is over they invite you to their homes or offer food. (W, Ch, Interview 41, Garmen 2006)

Where an observance, such as the kurban, is found in both religious groups, Christians tend to assume, often mistakenly, that each group observes it in a similar manner. In the following comment, the respondent erroneously says that Muslims, like Christians, share kurban meat in a cooked form469.

M.L.: So, what kind of holidays do they have, what are their bayrams?

S.: That’s a holiday they have. Bayram. I don’t know what it is.

M.: Me neither. I just know from our Zorka, she spends more time with them, that they celebrate it every year.

S.: Bayram is their holiday, and if you ask them they will tell you, “Oh, Kurban Bayram is coming”. At Kurban Bayram they sacrifice an animal, they cook it in a pot and share it with people. During Ramazan Bayram they fast. They only eat in the evening, in the dark, and in the morning before dawn, they get up and eat, and then spend the whole day fasting. (W, Ch, Interview 34, Garmen 2006)

My respondents note that Muslim women are less likely to participate in religious observances, but they often jump to sweeping conclusions. If they see a religious observance in which no Muslim women happen to be participating (such as reading the Qur’an or praying in the mosque) they automatically assume that women are banned from participating. The following comment illustrates how personal opinion affects thinking about religious ritual: the familiar observances of one’s own group seem orderly and superior, the unfamiliar ones seem chaotic and incomprehensible.

M.L.: Have you noticed any differences? How is their religion different?

D.: Their religion is different. Women don’t come into their mosques, only the men are allowed to do that. I’ve watched them. When they pray they have those rugs, they go down on their knees, the hodzha sings and they pray. When you go to a church, our ways are different. With us, it’s more well-organised, and we pray, we light candles. They don’t light candles. That’s one difference. We pray to God, they pray to Allah. (W, Ch, Interview 41, Garmen 2006)

In fact, Muslim women are allowed to attend mosques, which they do less often than men (mostly during the Ramadan) because women do not have to pray in a mosque (prayer at home is preferred in the case of women). As far as the Qur’an is concerned, women are only forbidden to read it without performing a ritual ablution (in common with men) or while menstruating (at which time they are also not allowed to enter mosques). Some of my Christian respondents are aware of those rules. Incidentally, menstruating women are simmilarly not supposed to go to church in Orthodox Christian communities:

A.: When explaining the Qur’an, Muhammad said that menstruating women should not be reading the Qur’an, the holy book. When her period is over she may enter a mosque and read the Qur’an, and pass it on to the next generation. (M, Ch, Interview 45, Dabnitsa 2006)

Another reason why Christians tend to know very little about the religious practices of the Pomak community is that religion tends to be left out of conversations between members of different religious groups for fear of provoking conflicts and upsetting the strategy of good relations between neighbours. I witnessed the disruptive potential of such conversations in mixed groups on one occasion, as illustrated by the following excerpts from a conversation between a Muslim woman and a Christian man. Although both noted the many similarities between the religions, they disagreed on a number of points, such as the number of books created by Allah, the relationship between Allah and God, whether children are born as Muslims or Christians (servants of God), or which religion is older. The disagreement almost ruined my planned extended interview with the Muslim woman, who was on the verge of pulling out of the interview:

Turkish Woman.: No. Allah gave three…

Man A.: What do you mean, Allah?

T.W.: I mean, our Allah.

A.: What do you mean, Allah, come on! Don’t be deluded. Allah and God are one and the same thing. …

T.W.: Allah created four books.

A.: Seven, my dear!

T.W.: Not true! …

A.: Well, the meaning is that when you baptize them, they know which religion they belong to.

T.W.: No, that’s not the case, Angyel! Every child in the world is born a Muslim, [and they remain Muslim] until the age of nine in the case of girls, the age of eleven in the case of boys. Because the Qur’an is the final book which must be believed. Every dead person will actually be judged in the next world according to the Muslim religion. It doesn’t matter if you’re Italian or French, it makes no difference. …

A.: He calls himself a servant of God, not a Muslim. Our children are born as servants of God. “God, I entrust this child to your care”. Whether you change the baby’s name from Asan to Angyel, that’s a different thing. If you walk into a church you should be a baptized person. All people are born the same, but we don’t say that everybody is born a Muslim. The Muslim faith is not the first religion. (W, M; M, Ch Interview 45, Dabnitsa 2006)

Unlike the female Muslim respondent, whose insistence that every human being is born a Muslim is compatible with Islamic doctrine, the beliefs of my Christian respondent are at odds with the Orthodox Christian creed, according to which people only become “servants of God” (Christians) through baptism.

Christians typically disparage the religious knowledge of Muslims, who they believe practice empty ritualism. For instance, they argue that Pomaks (the hodzhas excepted) do not understand the Arabic Qur’an or the Arabic prayers. This seems to be a projection of their own shortcomings; my material suggests that it is in fact Christians who struggled to place their own observances within the religious narrative.

It also seems that Christians have assimilated Islamic doctrine in one important aspect, namely they regard Christ as nothing more than a prophet and deny his divine nature.

A.: Now, I, a Christian, can pray in their mosque because we pray to one and the same God, though in different ways. There is no difference.

M.L.: So, for instance, why do you make the sign of the cross, but Muslims don’t?

A.: By this act you worship God, the Highest. To me, there is one and the same God, Pomak or Turkish, Bulgarian or even English. He is one and the same. Jesus Christ, Muhammad and others are messiahs sent to proclaim certain things about to happen in the world. Christ is a bit more important, then there is Muhammad. That’s how I understand it, and that’s how it is. God is one… (M, Ch, Interview 45, Dabnitsa 2006)

Islamic elements have been assimilated even by those respondents who are well versed in Christian and Muslim theology and clearly favour the former.

8.3  “The Orthodox Christian Muslim” – the “Syncretist” from “Vodino”

This section studies a special case where one individual, a young Protestant from a traditional Orthodox Christian family, has adopted certain Muslim practices. The man is a member of the functional elite. Though not representative of the general population, the man’s example may be influential owing to his social status; his opinions and actions are noted, and commented on, by the local community.

To protect my respondent’s anonymity, details such as his name, profession, education level or exact age are not disclosed. The man became a Protestant at the age of twenty after a period of intense interest in astrology, occultism and numerology, but gave up those occult pursuits when made aware of their sinful nature. The man discovered the Bible for the first time, and gradually became a “spiritual person”, an experience he describes as very difficult and accompanied by bouts of uncontrollable crying or laughter. He began to read the Bible on a regular basis, and knows extended passages of the biblical text by heart (not unlike the hodzhas, who often quote extended passages from the Qur’an). Like the hodzhas, the man treats traditional religion with reserve, contrasting it with “true spirituality” inspired by scriptural reading. As a Protestant, he considers the Bible to be the sole legitimate source of religion (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006).

The respondent is convinced that he has a connection with the Holy Spirit, to whom he has given himself, and who inspires him to pray and fast for specific people, reportedly producing miraculous healings on more than one occasion. During my first interview in 2005 he introduced himself as an “Orthodox Christian Muslim” in what he emphasized was the “spiritual sense of the term”. He explained that he considered himself an Orthodox Christian (because he praised God with his life) and a Muslim (because the word means “a believer”), but also a Catholic (citing the ancient pre-English meaning of the word as “universal”). In another interview the following year he revealed that he was a Protestant, a fact he did not disclose to the local community on account of the community’s reportedly negative attitude towards Protestants, who are considered a religious sect in the Rhodopes and are treated with mistrust in the Christian population (in fact, the respondent had been described to me as a cult member).

My interest in the respondent began when several impressed Muslims reported to me how the man had joined them in observing the Ramadan, a fact which made his appear closer than an average Christian neighbour. In an interview he explained to me that his decision to observe the Ramadan was not motivated by a conversion to Islam; on the contrary, he hoped to get his Muslim friends and actuaintances interested in Christianity, a tactic which by his own admission misfired when Muslims, hodzhas especially, ended up hoping to see his imminent conversion instead:

M.L.: How did they react to your observing the Ramazan?

Protestant: They reacted by expecting me to become an orthodox Muslim. In the spiritual sense I could describe myself as a Muslim because the word “Muslim” means “a believer”, but not in the traditional sense. I mean, I’m not trying to become a traditional Muslim because that would mean deceiving other people. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

My respondent explained that he had observed the Ramadan in order to draw nearer to Muslims, and he read the Qur’an to assimilate Islamic religious thinking in the interest of dialogue between religions.

Based on interview material and other people’s opinions about the respondent I discovered that he uses apparent religious syncretism as an intentional strategy to convert Muslims to Protestantism, which he describes as “true spiritual life”.

The respondent describes himself as having a “soft spot” for Muslims stemming from an anxious realization that Muslims cannot be saved because they reject divine grace, identified with the salvific sacrifice of Christ. As a result, the respondent is making efforts to reach out and bring salvation to at least some Muslims. He tries to engage Muslims in religious discussion, looking for shared elements in the two religions:

M.L.: When you’re with them you try to do something about it, is that right?

Protestant: Well, yes. I have a soft spot for Muslims. I’ve had no success in this respect, though. But I ask them. God… A friend of mine, she’s a Muslim, said I played an important part in her life. Many good things have happened. But she still doesn’t understand many of the things she should be aware of. Though I told her I was praying and fasting when she lost her job.

M.L.: How do you talk to them? How do you start a conversation? Do you start by finding some shared elements?

P.: Shared elements, that’s right … and usually, because they are very stubborn and they learn, they start out by showing off their knowledge about a topic, to show how much they’ve learned, and to present themselves in a good light. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

M.L.: Can Muslims be saved?

Protestant: I don’t think they can. Based on … There are some Christians who are more liberal and say that it’s possible but if you look at the closing parts of the Bible, the ending of the Revelation of St. John, it says [they can’t].

M.L.: But can you be happy, can you be in paradise knowing that your friends won’t be there?

P.: This is precisely what makes me unhappy. My dream hasn’t come true. People are happy when their dreams come true but mine haven’t. But I believe that God has a plan for them, to make them see spiritual truth. Spiritual truth, not just the rituals and the traditional religious life. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

According to the respondent, those Muslims who take an interest in the New Testament receive a special sign: the verses glow golden when read; this has never happened to the respondent himself, and he treats this experience as proof of Christianity’s supremacy over Islam. In his phrase, this is the way “God seeks to confirm the person in the truth”:

Protestant: I also know some Muslims with a traditional background who are seeking the truth, they’ve been reading the Bible and the Qur’an, and prayed to the Highest, to God – for he is one – to reveal to them what’s right. And as they were reading, especially the New Testament, the verses began to glow. The letters became radiant and golden. This never happened when they were reading the Qur’an… to see the text glow like that…

M.L.: How about you?

P.: This has never happened to me. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

M.L.: Last year you were telling me about those golden letters?

Protestant: Yes, that’s [the experience of] Christians who… There have actually been some cases where Muslims start reading the Bible, and God gives them verses that radiate with a golden light.

M.L.: How many such cases have you heard about?

P.: At least three or four.

M.L.: Did they tell you about that? How did you find out?

P.: Yes, they told me about it, and I’ve also been told by very good friends of mine who take a great interest in this, they’re Muslims.

M.L.: Are they locals?

P.: They’re from Gotse Delchev. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

Another reported miracle which had prompted some of the respondent’s Muslim friends to convert to Christianity is the experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the form of a fragrance:

Protestant: Those people didn’t see the glowing letters, but they have been visited by the power and the blazhenstvo [grace – M.L.] of the Holy Spirit. A woman experienced a wonderful smell while others could smell nothing.

M.L.: Is it something one can smell?

P.: Yes, you can smell a fragrance others can’t. There have been many other revelations, especially in her life. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

The respondent realizes that by reading the Qur’an and practising the Ramadan he may be raising hopes among Muslims that his conversion to Islam is imminent, but he considers the Qur’an to be a derivative book which can only be understood correctly in relation to the Bible:

Protestant: They expect me to conclude that the Qur’an is right. And it is, but only when studied in connection with the Bible. The two books share a spiritual context. I can’t go and change the creation of the world, all of the sacred history to date, or those underlying spiritual symbols. But they know nothing about them. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

When read in parallel, the two books are apparently so closely interrelated that the Qur’an actually proclaims many Christian truths, including Christianity’s supremacy over Islam.

Protestant: Besides, Muslims assume that Jesus will be involved in the [final] judgement … that will face everyone. That he will be a witness… In Surah 3, ayat 55 in the Qur’an it says, “Allah said, ‘O Jesus, indeed I will take you and raise you to Myself and purify you from those who disbelieve and make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieve …” This means that those who followed Jesus will be superior to those who did not believe him. So those who followed will take a higher place than those who didn’t. And he is also recognized as the King of Heavenly Jerusalem. So those who have followed him will take the highest place, and those who didn’t will be at the very bottom, they will be placed the lowest. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

Essentially, my respondent believes that Christian and Islamic teachings which are not contained in the Holy Scriptures are distortions of God’s word, severely punishable in the next world. He quotes the Revelation of St. John (22, 19):

Protestant: There’s a passage at the end, right, where it says that anyone who adds things to this book of prophecy or takes words away from it… It says so in the Bible, in Chapter 22, verse 19 of the Revelation of St. John, it says that God will withhold that person’s share in the tree of life. That is to say, those who change the meaning of the Scriptures, adding or removing things, will not find himself recorded in Jesus’s family tree470 [Bulgarian: rodoslovno – M.L.] (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

The respondent considers all religious elements not found in the Bible or the Qur’an to be the unreliable human inventions taking people further away from salvation. Such erroneous elements stem mainly from traditional religion, which the respondent believes offers no spiritual value:

Protestant: The same thing applies to Christianity as well. [Those who accept] some of the traditional religious standards, they do not embrace the [true] spiritual reality. That person is content, they celebrate Christmas and things like Gergiovden and suchlike, but the spiritual emptiness inside them gets filled up with a different kind of spiritual force. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

Accordingly, the respondent believes that differences between the Islamic and Christian religious rituals (based as they are on tradition, which is spiritually empty) are very much of secondary importance, if not completely irrelevant:

Protestant: I study them [the Bible and the Qur’an – M.L.] until I see some spiritual similarity between them. The differences in ritual, the traditional differences? That’s a human thing [a human invention]. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

In examining the parallels between the Bible and the Qur’an, the respondent pays attention to those passages in the Qur’an which contradict the prevalent Muslim prejudices against Christianity as shaped by tradition (my respondent subsumes the Sunnah and the hadiths under this term), such as the Muslim belief that the Gospels are forgeries. He points out that this is incompatible with the Qur’an, citing ayah 46 and 47 from Surah 5:

Protestant: Book 5 [of the Qur’an – M.L.] says this in lines, ayat 46 and 47: “We sent them” – meaning the prophets – “in Isa’s footsteps” – meaning Jesus, “son of Mary, confirming the Torah before him471”. The Torah is the book of Moses. Very often places containing references to the law of the prophets refer to the Old Testament as a whole. Christ uses that term as well. All of the Old Testament talks about [a book] that went before him to confirm the Torah, which was before him. “And he gave us the Gospel” containing instructions and light, to confirm the Torah that was before him, and the instructions from God enlighten him. And verse 47 says “So let the People of the Gospel judge according to what God has sent down therein. Whosoever judges not according to what God has sent down, they are corrupt”. This means that the Gospel was been given as an authentic and authoritative criterion. This is confirmed. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

The respondent reads the two holy texts closely to find confirmation for a religious model presenting Christianity as superior to Islam, a religion providing the only religious path to salvation (a point he makes repeatedly). Argument in support of Islam’s subordinate position is the biblical genealogy according to which the Arabs are descended from Isma‘il, whom the respondent describes as the fruit of Ibrahim and Sarah’s doubt.

Protestant: What’s born the human way remains human. What’s born of the spirit thanks to God’s promise… That is to say, Hagar gave birth to Ismail who was the fruit of their doubt. They doubt in God. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

The reference is to the belief that Muslims are descended from Hagar, as evident in the exoethnonym “Hagarite”. By drawing attention to Isma‘il the respondent dismisses the role of Abraham as the shared father and founder of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The respondent’s main objection to Islam is that the Qur’an its spiritual symbolic meaning has been excised, making much of its content incomprehensible to Muslims. As a result, Muslims cannot rely on the necessary spiritual signposts which direct one in living a good life. He is even more critical about other kinds of Muslim religious literature, which he believes is spiritually empty:

Protestant: The way I see it … The way I see it myself … Right, so these are two peoples living next to each other, and an echo of the Scripture had reached them, but they failed to understand its spiritual meaning. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

Protestant: Without the Bible you can’t find your spiritual way, even though the Qur’an talks about the same things. The same people, the same events, but some things have also been left out. And unless the Bible throws light on certain questions you cannot understand them in the spiritual sense, in fact you can hardly make sense of the chronology. Because the entire Qur’an is [written] in a uniform, preaching style. Everything’s mixed up, there’s no structure. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

M.L.: Are all kinds of Islam [equally] ritualistic or traditional?

Protestant: Yes.

M.L.: There is no spiritual Islam?

P.: No. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

Protestant: And they believe that other Muslim books could influence me to embrace it. Those books are so far removed from spirituality, from spiritual reality, that I just read them for information, sometimes they just feel like a waste of time. But I read them anyway to get some idea of other people’s thinking, and I conclude that some of their writers are in a very sorry state … Take one of them, the author of the book The Road to Jerusalem, he writes that the flight from Egypt is a religious fable. But every believer would accept that the flight from Egypt is a historical fact and not a fable! A fable is an invention to illustrate a spiritual reality. But this fact also has a spiritual meaning. The eating of manna by the Jews has a spiritual meaning as well. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

According to the respondent, some of the hodzhas realize the spiritual emptiness of Islamic religion because they agree that the sin of Adam and Hawwa resulted in a spiritual death for mankind. This appears to be an overinterpretation not confirmed by my material or the position of Sunni Islam, which does not accept the doctrine of the original sin or connect humanity’s transgressions with Adam and Hawwa. According to my respondent, mankind has been given a fresh spiritual birth thanks to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. However, because Islam confuses the Holy Spirit with the Archangel Jibra’il Muslims are unable to make use of those gifts:

M.L.: When talking to you, has anyone ever admitted that they didn’t have enough spirituality in their life?

Protestant: Yes. The hodzhas knows that humanity experienced a spiritual death after the Fall. But because they confuse the Holy Spirit with the Archangel Gavriil [Gabriel – M.L.]…

M.L.: Did you discuss it with them, or is that a taboo subject?

P.: It is something of a taboo. You have to build a close personal relationship and gain their trust in order to discuss that. It’s best to discuss it in one-on-one conversations; in a group they feel obligated to defend [their point of view].

M.L.: Have you had a conversation like this?

P.: Yes. I’ve had a conversation with a man who said that the main thing was missing, and that it was missing from the Arabic world as well.

M.L.: Meaning prayer?

P.: That it’s not there. It’s beautiful but it’s just not there.

M.L.: Did he like that passage?

P.: He likes it but this is a spiritual fruit, the spiritual result of the work of the Holy Spirit. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

At the same time, the respondent is able to find and quote actual passages from the Qur’an on spirituality and the Holy Spirit, citing Surah 24, 35:

Protestant: In the Qur’an it says in Surah 24, ayat 35: “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp (the lamp in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star) kindled from a Blessed Tree, an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it; Light upon Light!” So this is a reference to the olive tree which is not from the East or the West, it’s not an earthly tree. This refers to true spirituality which comes out of a niche, meaning heaven, in order to direct people. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

So long as Muslims fail to believe in this true spirituality they cannot partake in the gifts of the Holy Spirit: as the respondent puts it, “they will not be anointed with the Holy Spirit”. As a Protestant, the respondent does not refer to the sacrament of confirmation as administered in churches, but rather to a state of the spirit:

Protestant: Unless you accept Christ’s sacrifice the Holy Spirit cannot come down. Christ means the Anointed One, anointment with holy oils was performed in the Old Testament so that the Holy Spirit may pour out on people. Olive oil brings light. The Holy Spirit brings light into a person’s life.

M.L.: Do you believe that it’s not possible to receive the Holy Spirit without being anointed with oils, or …?

P.: You have to feel sorrow for your sins, and you have to long to receive the Holy Spirit.

M.L.: But they practice anointment with oils in the church?

P.: They do, that’s right.

M.L.: But this is not about physical actions? In other words, could this take place without a physical anointment?

P.: That’s right, it’s unnecessary. I’ve never been anointed with holy oils but the Holy Spirit is working in my life. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

The fact that the respondent looks for hidden traces of Christianity in Islam suggests he believes Islam to have always been a form of unsuspecting crypto-Christianity, cobbled together out of leftovers remaining after the spiritual core, Christ’s sacrifice, has been removed: those who do not accept it cannot be saved, in keeping with a passage from the Revelation of St. John (21, 27):

Protestant: This is to say that those who want to save themselves just by knowing what’s good and what’s evil are in fact even more evil because they fail to accept Christ’s sacrifice. And those who accept it will be written in the genealogical tree and in the book of life mentioned in the Revelation of St. John, the last book of the Bible. Nothing impure will ever enter Heavenly Jerusalem, nor will anyone who commits shameful and deceitful deeds, but only those whose names are written in Adam’s book of life472. That’s chapter 21, verse 27. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

The respondent cites the Epistle to the Hebrews (10, 28–29) in support of his point that the sin of failing to accept Christ’s sacrifice is a more serious than violating the Ten Commandments:

Protestant: In the Epistle to the Hebrews …, in the letter to the Jews, chapter 10, verse 29, 28, it says: “Anyone who violated Moses’ Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses”. And verse 29, “Consider, how much more severely someone should be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, or who has insulted the Spirit of grace”. This means that the failure to accept Christ’s sacrifice is a heavier sin than breaking the Ten Commandments, because everyone has broken the Ten Commandments in one way or another. To a greater or lesser extent, everyone has lied etc. But it is written that God’s Ten Commandments are only given to people as a criterion for [recognizing] sin. [The commandments] are not a means to salvation because no person can live up to them. (Interview 20, Ognianovo 2005)

The respondent argues that the Qur’an contains hidden or indirect references to “Christ’s victory over the cross” in passages about the Resurrection. The following comment may be difficult to understand because it relies on the similarity of the Bulgarian words for “Resurrection” (vzkreseniye) and “cross” (krst):

Protestant: Muslims don’t accept the fact that Christ was crucified. They say Judas was crucified instead. But the same Surah 19, ayat 33 says, “Peace be upon me, the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I am raised up473 alive”. The word “raised up” [Resurrection, Bulgarian: vyzkresenye – M.L.] means victory over death on the cross. Which is to say, a man must go through death and be resurrected. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

The respondent implies that it is impossible to believe in Resurrection (victory over the cross) without accepting Christ’s death on the cross, which is the precondition for Resurrection:

Protestant: They also believe that as he [Jesus] was a servant of Allah, Allah could not have allowed him to suffer this kind of punishment. But in order to rise again [Bulgarian: da vzkrysne], he first had to experience death on the cross. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

In a kind of conciliatory nod towards Islam, the respondent admits that in a sense Christ as the Living Word could not be crucified:

Protestant: So, as he is the Word of Allah, he fails to be recognized as the Word. And the Word is not something you can’t detain or kill, or crucify. So although he truly suffered in the flesh, he was crucified and killed, he spilled his blood, nonetheless he was not recognized as the living Word, as the living Word incarnate. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

M.L.: What about the crucifixion?

Protestant: That’s assuming the conversation gets that far without them getting tired of it. But mostly they do get tired.

M.L.: You mean, crucifixion is the most difficult [topic of conversation – M.L.]?

P.: Yes, it is the most difficult food. It’s like that analogy we drew with ruminants… Ruminants turn cellulose into sugar – but in their case the topic must be broached very carefully if they are to accept that these things are true. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

In the respondent’s opinion, the passages in the Qur’an which condemn believers in the Holy Trinity do not apply to Christians because the trinitarian dogma is not present in the Bible, and so can be safely disregarded in interreligious dialogue. In fact, true Christians do not have to accept this element of dogma474:

M.L.: So, how does the Qur’an describe unbelievers?

Protestant: It refers to all people who do not believe in one God as unbelievers. Those who believe in the Trinity are similarly described as unbelievers. That’s why it makes no sense… It makes no sense to discuss this subject. The word “Trinity” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. The word is never mentioned. So why have those unnecessary polemics, it’s just pointless. What matters is salvation through Christ’s sacrifice, which itself is a big problem to begin with. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

Protestant: At this stage it’s not my goal in conversation with them to explain everything in detail.

M.L.: Do you discuss the Holy Trinity with them?

P.: Oh, no, no. That would make no sense. That would just lead to confrontation, but the Holy Trinity is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible, right? Or things like the triune nature of God [Bulgarian: triednistvo – M.L.]. The Bible doesn’t contain this expression anywhere. Those are conclusions drawn from passages referring to them as One. But to them [Muslims] this is a major stumbling block. No point in talking about it. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

Although the respondent clearly favours Christianity, his perspective not only blurs the distinctive nature of Islam, but also, unavoidably, brings Christianity more into line with Islam, which is evident in the way certain elements of Christian doctrine are edited out if not accepted in the Qur’an. In theory, this only applies to those dogmas which find no direct confirmation in the Bible. In practice, however, my respondent is not always consistent. He mines the Bible for quotes which are compatible with their Qur’anic parallels, and vice versa. Despite his protestations that he reads the Qur’an in the light of Christian Scripture, the process occasionally appears to be go in the opposite direction. For instance, where he argues that Jesus was not the Son of God but a servant of God, a belief in line with the Qur’an, he cherrypicks those biblical passages which confirm this belief, ignoring or belittling those which describe Jesus as the Son:

Protestant: They don’t accept it that Jesus called himself the Son. He was a servant. The Acts of the Apostles referred to Christ as a servant of God. But because he is the Word, you can call him all kinds of things… Prophet, Messiah, King or Lord. And it is true that he is the Word in its entirety. It’s very interesting… Unless you speak his name, your prayer cannot reach heaven. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

It would seem that such attunement or synchronisation between religions is necessarily a two-way process, inevitably leading to adapting foreign elements into one’s own religious model. As Stanley J. Tambiah points out, “translation of another people’s conceptions into the categories of one’s own language [should] be not regarded as a one-way street, for the true understanding of another should hold open the prospect that the other’s conceptions may inform our own, and thereby extend and/or modify our own conception of rationality” (Tambiah 1990, p.121).

The same kind of modification also occurs in the context of religious convergence. The respondent juxtaposes the ideal scriptural versions of the two religions, and remains loyal to his own in those things he believes are central to its doctrine and spiritual life (such as the belief in salvation through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross), however he is prepared to modify those elements which he sees as peripheral (such as literal belief that Jesus is the Son of God).

To my respondent, the nature of Jesus as the Word of God is a fundamental aspect in both religions. His nature as the Word of God is archetypal and has precedence over all other roles and appellations (such as prophet, Messiah, King or Lord), including the appellation of Son of God and the divine nature it implies. To the respondent, the Gospel of St. John is of paramount importance, and he juxtaposes its opening chapter with parallel passages in the Qur’an:

Protestant: But in fact he is the Word of God, because John’s Gospel begins with the words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God”. Verse 14 says, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”. The Qur’an says the same, I already talked to you about this [in an interview in 2005 – M.L.], that Isa, meaning Jesus, is the Word. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

Protestant: And his name is God’s Word. The Qur’an says that too, that Jesus is the Word of Allah. That he’s the word of truth in which they doubted. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

Protestant: Surah 19, ayat 34 says: “That is Jesus, son of Mary, the word of truth, concerning which they are doubting”. This means the Qur’an confirms that Christ is Allah’s Messiah as the Word incarnate, which is to say, the Word of Truth. The gospel also says that the Word is Truth, and that Jesus is the Word, he is the way, the truth and the life for salvation. No one comes to … Heaven, to the Father, except by him. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

Christ’s divinity should be taken in a figurative sense as a way of recognizing Jesus as God’s heir and future ruler of “Heavenly Jerusalem”475.

Protestant: At this point we can take our time and explain that the words which identify Jesus as the Son are symbolic, although he doesn’t actually have an earthly father and God is his father. That is to say, it refers to his inheritance. God wants to bring sinners back to himself, because he placed the Messiah to rule Heavenly Jerusalem as its king. It’s a kind of inheritance, and on earth you come into your inheritance from your parents. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

According to my respondent, this is why the Bible refers to Jesus as the Lord of Heavenly Jerusalem, and not as God:

Protestant: Muslims find it awkward that Jesus is described as God, but in fact this refers to the Lord of Heavenly Jerusalem. It is written that only Allah is God. But in fact [Allah] vested the power in him. So there is no contradiction. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

The respondent identifies another shared Muslim and Christian belief relating to Christ, namely the belief that Jesus was the Messiah, supported in his work by the Holy Spirit. He compares two passages, one from the Revelation of St. John (19, 11–13) and one from the Qur’an (2: 253):

Protestant: Jesus himself says: “Heaven and earth shall pass away but my words shall not pass away”. They are everlasting. That is to say, Allah speaks and they accept, which is corroborated by the Qur’an, which says that he is Allah’s sole Messiah. His words are eternal because in his case the word “Messiah” means King and Lord. This is the “Heavenly Jerusalem” from the Revelation of St. John. This heavenly city must have a King, and Christ is that King. He is the Messiah referred to in the Revelation of St. John, chapter 19, starting with line 11, where it says, “Then I saw heaven standing open, and a white horse, and the rider on that horse is called Faithful and True, who judges with justice and wages war. His eyes are like a fiery blaze, and on his head are many diadems. He has a name written on him that no one knows but himself, and he is dressed in a robe dipped in blood…”476, meaning his own blood from his sacrifice. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

The respondent identifies many aspects of Islam which he argues implicitly recognize Christ’s nature in line with Christian belief. For instance, Muslims who say “Amen” at the end of their prayers actually invoke Christ because the word “Amen”, whose Aramaic root means “Truth”, is one of the names of Jesus:

Protestant: “Truly, I am telling you the truth”. Christ repeats the same word twice, Truth, so this must have particular importance. In his times people said … In Samaria they spoke Aramaic. “Amen”; the word “amen” means “truth”. In the Revelation of St. John it says that Christ is the “Amen”, that he is the truth. But in the traditional sense people translate that word as “May it be so”. But such prayers shall not be granted, unless by truth. God would not grant a wish that does not follow from truth. So you have to accept Christ’s sacrifice, and then that “amen” becomes valid. (Interview 20,”Vodino” 2005)

Today, the word is removed from its proper context of Christ’s death on the cross which leads to a spiritual rebirth:

Protestant: “Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?’ Jesus answered: ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless a man is born of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God’” (J, 3, 5). Which is to say, he must be born with a capital B, this is the Holy Spirit. He gives one a new spiritual life. And when a man receives the spiritual life he gets entered in the book of life … He accepts Christ’s sacrifice. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

My respondent explains that the Qur’an consistently refers to Jesus as the Messiah (the Anointed One), in recognition of the fact, essentially compatible with Christianity, that Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit:

Protestant: I mean, here’s another problem with the Holy Spirit. The problem with the Holy Spirit is that the Qur’an, Surah 2, ayat 253 says, “And those Messengers, some We have preferred above others; some there are to whom God spoke, and some He raised in rank. And we gave Jesus son of Mary clear signs and confirmed him with the Holy Spirit”. Which is to say, if he is the Messiah, then he must be anointed. The Messiah means the Anointed One. Anointed with the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the only Messiah according to the Qur’an. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

Protestant: The word “Messiah” means “the anointed one”, and anointment comes from the Holy Spirit. The Qur’an says the same thing, that Jesus was strengthened in his messianic mission by the Holy Spirit. And to fulfil it he had to be anointed by the Holy Spirit, which is symbolised by scented olive oil in the Old Testament. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

In addition to this evidence of Islam’s hidden Christ-centric elements the respondent also points out hidden demonic elements in the religion. The fact that Muslims worship on the sixth day is one of them, because the number six is connected with the Antichrist:

Protestant: The number six is the number of man and godlessness. This is why 666 is the number of the beast, the number of the Antichrist. But Muslims worship on the sixth day, Friday is the sixth day for bowing to God. Do you understand the meaning of this?! Those things are so interconnected, it’s unbelievable. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

The respondent points out that certain religious practices (such as the covering of the body) were rendered obsolete by the coming of Christ, making continued observance pointless:

Protestant: In Corinthians, chapter 2. The second Epistle to Corinthians, chapter 3, verse 11 (…). Under Moisey’ [Moses] Law, they used to put a veil over the Torah in their hearts. But when Israel turned to God, meaning Christ, that vail was lifted. But God is the spirit, and where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom. And here… The veil worn by Moses is also described in the Qur’an, Surah 50, verse 22… This passage refers to the Day of Judgement, when one faces Allah. And ayat 22 says, “Thou wast heedless of this; therefore We have now removed from thee thy covering, and so thy sight today is piercing” (the Qur’an 40:22). Then, on the Day of Judgement, the true nature of things will be revealed to everyone. But then it will be too late. But now… as we read in the letter to Corinthians, the veil is lifted in Christ, the Messiah. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

The respondent is alluding to subsequent verses in the second Epistle to Corinthians (3, 14–18): “But their minds were blinded; for until this day the same veil remaineth untaken away in the reading of the old testament, which veil is done away with in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their hearts. Nevertheless, when they shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away. Now the Lord is that Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with uncovered face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord”477.

Protestant: Shari‘ah, too, is something very unique. It’s law. But in the book of the prophet Isaya [Isaiah – M.L.], who lived 700 years before Christ, this is what it says in chapter 28, verses 11, 12 and 13: “For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this [people]”… Then, verse 11, which is unnecessary. “To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear”. But the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go … (Is 28, 11–13) and so on, and so forth. Which is to say, whoever does not accept God’s grace or solvation through the grace of Christ’s sacrifice, to them religion becomes precept upon precept, do this, don’t do that. Decree after decree, rule after rule. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

The respondent believes that Judaism and Islam are closed to spirituality and focus exclusively on the material aspects of life. Observing religious duties focused on the material dimension is an ordeal which often involves hypocrisy since it only observes the letter of the Law, still in force in Judaism or Islam but abolished in Christianity, which focuses on spiritual well-being:

M.L.: Why do they perform abdest?

Protestant: Abdest is purification by water. But this also symbolises spiritual cleansing. The Jews considered it important, too: to use water, to wash and cleanse various objects and your own body. If you comply with all those requirements, a household would have to use up 6 cubic meters of water [1,585 US gallons – M.L.] every day. That’s an awful lot, if you wanted to stick to all those rules. Nobody could do that. Those are impossible requirements. Which is precisely why Jesus fulfilled the Law in its entirety, to redeem us from the curse of the Law.

M.L.: For instance, they do not touch the Qur’an with unwashed hands. A woman must not read the Qur’an when she is unclean.

P.: Yes, but then they go and commit all kinds of iniquity. They get angry very easily. The men are very quick to curse, the women curse a lot, too.

M.L.: How do you know that?

P.: I know it. I watch them, I listen to them, I live with them. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

Protestant: The Epistle to the Colossians, chapter 2 verse 11, says, “and in whom [meaning Christ, explains the Protestant] also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ”. And the Epistle to the Romans, chapter 2, verse 29 says that circumcision is a matter of your heart, its spiritual, not literal. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

The respondent believes that Muslims have no unconditional love, which is replaced by a relationship of reciprocity (“if you are good to them they will be good to you”) and a zealous attitude towards religious obligations, seeing as the letter of the Law. Because they reject God’s grace shown in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, they are less likely to be saved than Christians:

Protestant: Where it comes to the things we’ve discussed here, I’ve never had a chance to save them to an orthodox Muslim because they are rather inaccessible and quite… they believe they know the ultimate truth, but that truth is not placed in its spiritual context! They’re exactly like it says in the book of Isaya, chapter 28, versus 11, 12 and 30: “precept upon precept”. Because they did not accept grace. Generally speaking, they are very committed but it’s also clear they have no love. If you are good to them they will be good to you. Everything is a matter of contracts. There is no unconditional love. Right… If you’re not the kind of person… They wanted to be… The mood gets revolutionary. So, the mutual relations are very fragile. But I believe that God has thought of it, because he promised we should expect a kind of mass spiritual revival before the end comes. (Interview 20, “Vodino” 2005)

My respondent believes that the Muslim perspective can be equated with empty ritualism, a frequent accusation made by my Christian respondents:

M.L.: Let’s move on. What’s the meaning of the phrase “religious person” to the Muslims?

Protestant: Well, they will tell you that every day you have to say your namaz, perform your abdest, and you should make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in your lifetime if you can afford it.

You shouldn’t drink alcohol, you have to be kind and give alms. They attach great significance to good deeds, which they call sevap, and which pave your way to heaven. To make sure your good deeds outweigh the bad. This said, when I watch them… Like I just said, they get very excitable for no reason, and there is no…

M.L.: Can you give me an example?

E.: Say, a man gets upset with his horse or cow, and he’ll start cursing the animal, or his neighbour. Even though it is written that you should love your neighbour like yourself. (Interview 46, “Vodino” 2006)

As these examples demonstrate, the respondent uses a rather hermetic language whose categories largely remove the problem of cognitive dissonance caused by the comparisons between the creeds of Islam and Christianity. Although he considers himself an “orthodox” believer who is faithful to the Scriptures, he actually practices a selective and idiosyncratic form of belief, in this case shaped by his proselytizing experience. In trying to convert Muslims to (Protestant) Christianity he treats his own religion in a highly selective way, rejecting those elements which Muslims might find particularly objectionable. His interpretation of the Bible is filtered by his religious choices as he cherrypicks evidence to support his beliefs. At the same time, he insists quite dogmatically that his readings of biblical symbols are the true ones, often identifying prophetic visions in the text (such as interpreting passages from the Revelation of St. John as a prophecy of the European Union, which he identifies as the Antichrist).

Although the respondent uses religious syncretism as a conscious proselytizing technique, the approach seems to be unconsciously filtering into his own belief, which becomes selective (Piwowarski 1996, p. 190). Although he argues that he reads the Qur’an in the light of the Gospel and considers himself a faithful adherent of the evangelical message, his thinking is affected in practical terms by Qur’anic interpretations as he often picks only those elements of Christianity which are not directly rejected in the Qur’an. This is especially true about those doctrines which are not present explicitly in the Gospel, such as the dogma of the Holy Trinity, which he believes to be an optional element in true Christian orthodoxy. In this, his approach is similar to the selective approach diagnosed by Paul M. Zulehner in that individual religious beliefs is shaped by private experience (in this case, living next to with Muslim neighbours and an interest in Islam) and personal preference (Zulehner 1998, p. 390–395).

443 It should be added that some of my respondents notice (with alarm in some cases) the growing influence of Deoband Islam among the Pomaks, which has reduced Muslim participation in the local Christian religious practices, such as passing under a table covered with a plashchanitsa (gr. epitaphion, is an icon in the form of a shroud bearing the image of Christ laid in the tomb) on Good Friday, believed to have healing powers.

444 Unlike the Bulgrarian-speaking Muslims, who do not “work it out in isolation but … negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internalized, with others” (Taylor 1991, p. 47).

445 In 2009 he was no longer working in Hadzidimovo. I was informed that he worked in Sofia and was “a close associate” of Metropolitan Maksim.

446 Theopist is named “Teoktist” in those versions.

447 Depicted in one of the smaller panels (kleima) surrounding the main subject of the icon.

448 Crucifixion Friday, another name for Good Friday (literally: “Crucified Friday”).

449 The gesture is interpreted in the same way by the Orthodox Christian population in the region of Białystok, Poland.

450 A part of the Good Friday liturgy composed by St. Cyril of Jerusalem which includes five services comprising nine hours and featuring liturgical songs and psalms about Christ‘s Passion and suffering.

451 Here, litiya means a short funeral service (Smykowska 2004, p. 45).

452 A part of the Orthodox Christian service in which a priest or a deacon intones a series of petitions to which the faithful respond “Lord have mercy” or “Grant this, O Lord” (Smykowska 2004, p. 25).

453 I witnessed this practice in Orthodox churches in Sofia.

454 The Day of the Jordan celebrated as the Epiphany in the Orthodox Churches. In Bulgaria the holiday is celebrated on 6 January.

455 This is the second definition of the term appearing in the Polish ethnological dictionary (Słownik etnologiczny, 1987) (cf. Buchowski 1987, p. 218). This can be contrasted with the definition proposed by Z. Grbecka in which magic is a form of behaviour calculated to achieve, at a relatively small cost, an immediate and direct effect in the real world as opposed to the next world (cf. Grbecka 2006, p. 31).

456 For instance, none of my respondents mentioned Jesus‘s baptism in the Jordan as the foundational event for this ritual. One respondent said that the priest says to the mother during christening, “You gave me a little Jewish child, I‘m giving you back a little Christian” (Interview 42, Garmen 2006). Obviously, this is an ad-libbed comment rather than part of the official rite.

457 Used by Orthodox Christian clergy instead of an aspergil.

458 Noted by researchers as early as the 19th century (cf. Tsaneva 1994, p. 130). As in the case of lambs (see a bove), salt is an operator of the transition from Nature to Culture by achieving transition from a person’s philogenetic and ontogenetic origins (cf. Wasilewski 1989, p. 121, p. 135). In the first plane, salt effects departure from paradise (cf. Wasilewski 1989, p. 123), in the second (given to, or rubbed into the skin of, a newborn baby, it marks the exit from fetal phase (cf. Wasilewski 1989, p. 135).

459 In this context salt plays a role opposite to that described above: rather than symbolize the rupture of man’s paradisal existence it serves to preserve it by keeping the human body in a state of paradisal purity, when the human body did not smell or perspirate.

460 Orthodox Christians celebrate the holiday three times a year, on the Saturdays before Lent (Mesnite Zagovezdi) – the so-called Great All Souls’ Day, Pentecost and the feast of St. Michael the Archangel.

461 A holiday celebrated on the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar. It is celebrated by Shi‘ah Muslims to commemorate the martyrdom of al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali in Karbala. In the Sunni tradition in the former Ottoman territories the day commemorates the survival of Nuh’s Ark, which landed on that day on Mount Ararat. The remaining supplies (dried fruits, grains and nuts) were used to make the thanksgiving meal.

462 ‘Ashura is mainly celebrated by the Shi‘ites in memory of al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali’s martyrdom, an event dramatized during those celebrations.

463 A Turkish woman from Dabnitsa explained to me that the dish must contain eleven ingredients. The most important ones included beans, rice, couscous, nuts, sugar and water.

464 The ninth month of the Muslim calendar in which fasting is prescribed for all able adults between sunrise and sunset. Eating, drinking, smoking or sexual intercourse are forbidden during the period of fasting. Fasting during this month is one of the five pillars of Islam.

465 Zagovezni are celebrations roughly equivalent to Shrove Tuesday. The celebrations of Mesni Zagovezni (Meat Lent, from the third week of Lent) and Sirni Zagovezni mark the time in which believers first abstain from meat, and then also from dairy products and eggs as well. The respondent is trying to emphasize the important moments during Lent.

466 Sweet pastries made of thin kori (filo) pastry filled with nuts and sweet syrup; layers of the pastry are placed on top of each other like a layered cake or formed into a spiral.

467 Turkish pastries soaked in sweet syrup.

468 A cultural practice in which women meet to weave, spin or sew. Ritual songs are sung in a cheerful atmosphere.

469 The meat is actually shared raw.

470 The passage refers to the tree of life, and it seems that the respondent is referring not to much to the genealogy of Jesus as the place of the living within Christ’s mystical body.

471 The actual passage in the Qur’an actually communicates the opposite idea: “And We sent, following in their footsteps, Jesus son of Mary, confirming the Torah before him”.

472 The book of life in the scriptural original belongs to the Lamb rather than to Adam.

473 The Bulgarian translation of the Qur’an quoted by the respondent refers to the concept of resurrection.

474 However, the respondent affirmed in an interview made the following year that the Holy Trinity has existed since the beginning of the world.

475 The respondent did not use the term “heaven” in the interview, replacing it with the biblical apocalyptic term “Heavenly Jerusalem”.

476 The respondent leaves out the ending of the passage: “and his name is the Word of God” (Ap 19, 13).

477 21st Century King James Version.