“Bulgaria is a very delicious cake for the cults,” says Ben Peevi, a Pentecostal pastor from the north-central town of Russe. For most Bulgarians, anything from the West deserves attention, especially if it is slickly packaged. And that notion has opened the door to an influx of primarily American-made religious groups. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Children of God, and the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon have found Bulgaria particularly receptive to their brands of belief. The Mormons have at least 14 centers throughout the country. Some 2,000 youth in the capital city of Sofia have joined the Children of God.

What is most disturbing to Peevi, however, is that evangelical Christians have not been immune to the message of such groups. “Most young Christians in our country are totally ignorant of our [church’s] distinction from cults,” he says. Denied biblical training under the Communists, today’s generation of church leaders generally cannot provide the teaching needed to build spiritual discernment in their congregations. Peevi recounts how a Unification Church leader from Great Britain recently found favor among evangelicals in his home town. The man was invited to speak at an evangelical church. “He introduced himself as a member of the Unification Church, and nobody knew what it meant,” Peevi said.

Though the Orthodox Church claims a following of some 60 percent of the country’s 9 million people (evangelicals make up less than 1 percent), the average Bulgarian has a rather unorthodox view of God. Informal surveys have found that the vast majority, particularly young people, believe that God is an abstract, impersonal force.

Located in Europe’s far southern corner, Bulgaria has long been fertile ground for mystical thought. In the Middle Ages, the country was a center of European cultic activity.

Five hundred years of Ottoman Turkish rule added another influential ingredient to Bulgaria’s syncretistic soup. Though the Orthodox Church survived during this period of Muslim rule, many of its followers have incorporated folk ritual and beliefs into their practice.

During the tenth century, the Bogomils, a heretical gnostic sect, broke off from the Orthodox church. The Gnostics believed that one should seek direct knowledge—or what would be described today as “cosmic consciousness”—through psychic powers. Since the Renaissance, movements and societies dedicated to psychic development have flourished.

In 1922, a U.S.-educated Methodist convert named Peter Dunev returned to Bulgaria with theosophic views and began teaching a brand of Eastern mysticism, holding to reincarnation and vegetarianism. He developed a broad following before his death in 1946. Though Dunev’s teaching was banned by the Communists, advocates are known to exist today, particularly among intellectuals.

Ironically, Bulgaria’s Communist leaders were among the devotees of the occult and Eastern religions. Bulgaria’s minister of culture in the early 1980s, Lyudmila Zhivkova, was a known proponent of Eastern mysticism.

Bulgaria’s fascination with the supernatural has only intensified during the past two years of political and ideological upheaval. “Bulgarians are in a very deep crisis,” Peevi says. “They are not sure what they are looking for.”

Western groups espousing “health and wealth,” or prosperity teaching, have taken advantage of that, finding a welcome audience among Bulgaria’s Pentecostal movement, which may account for as many as two-thirds of the country’s approximately 30,000 evangelicals. The doctrine of “Jesus only” Pentecostals, also imported from America, is finding acceptance as well among some evangelical congregations.

Last summer Peevi helped conduct seminars on cults in five major Bulgarian cities. In the eastern town of Dobrich, some 1,000 young people turned out for the seminar, which inspired Peevi to develop a course that he will teach at the newly formed interdenominational Bible school, Logos, in Sofia. He is currently taking theological training at London Bible College. He is also preparing a 50-page booklet that spells out the beliefs of the four major Western cults in Bulgaria.

“Christian leaders are not prepared to struggle with the cults,” Peevi says. “There is no book on the subject in Bulgarian so far. Most of the leaders are totally ignorant about the cults, so they can’t explain to the young people what the danger really is.”

By Art Moore in Vienna.

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