Patriarch Neophyte, leader of Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church, dies at 78

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Patriarch Neophyte of Bulgaria, who was the first elected head of the Orthodox Church in the post-communist Balkan country, died at a hospital in Sofia. He was 78.

The Orthodox Holy Synod said Wednesday in a statement that the patriarch had been hospitalized for four months for lung ailments.

The Holy Synod of 15 senior clergy will choose an interim patriarch until a larger church council picks Patriarch Neophyte’s successor within the next four months, church officials said.

Orthodox Christianity is Bulgaria’s dominant religion, followed by some 85 percent of the country’s 6.7 million people. Patriarch Neophyte was the church’s leader for 11 years succeeding his predecessor Maxim, who was at the helm of Bulgaria’s dominant Orthodox Church during the turbulent transition period from communism to democracy.

Born in Sofia on Oct. 15, 1945, as Simeon Nikolov Dimitrov, he graduated from the Theological Academy in Sofia in 1971. He took the name Neophyte and was sworn in as a monk in the Troyan Monastery in 1975. He taught church singing at the Theological Academy, led its choir and was its rector before becoming a bishop in 1994.

Patriarch Neophyte welcomed Pope Francis during the pontiff’s visit to Sofia in 2019, a trip seen as warming the frosty relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Vatican.