The Russian Orthodox Church Seeks Beijing’s Official Recognition

The Russian Orthodox Church has asked to be recognised as one of China’s official religions. Representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate hope to have an answer from the Chinese government before 2008.

According to Dionisy Pozdnyaev of the Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations discussions between Moscow and Beijing have been going on “for some years.”

"It would be great if the Chinese government recognised the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church. However, it would be necessary to re-establish the Church hierarchy, which was completely wiped out in 1966" during the Cultural Revolution. “We hope,” Father Dionisy said, “to have a deal before the 2008 Olympic Games.”

The Russian Orthodox Church arrived in China about 300 years ago. But little is known of this period. The first congregations were established by Russian immigrants who settled especially in the northern regions of the country. At present, there are only 13,000 believers, mostly of Russian origin. They are concentrated in four areas of the country: Heilongjiang province; Harbin, where there is a parish dedicated to the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God; Inner Mongolia (in Labdarin); Xinjiang (in Kulj and Urumqi).

In the early 1900s there were congregations in Beijing and Shanghai, but they were broken up and their buildings either destroyed or used for other purposes. For a time an Orthodox church in Shanghai became the stock exchange; another one in Beijing was incorporated into the compound of the Russian embassy.

At the national level, China recognises only five religions, namely Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Taoism, and Buddhism. Beijing also recognises the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church but only in Xinjiang province and Inner Mongolia.

The fate of the Orthodox Church is similar to that of its sister Churches, Catholic and Protestant. At the time of the Boxer revolution in 1900, the Orthodox were attacked and many suffered martyrdom. In August 2000, 222 martyrs were canonised by the Moscow Patriarchate (2 months ahead of the Catholic canonisation of October 1). However, if the Orthodox canonisation was quietly ignored by Beijing, that carried by the Catholic Church was strongly criticised by the Chinese government on the grounds that the Catholic martyrs were “collaborators with the imperialist forces.”

In 1957, when Mao Zedong started nationalising the Churches by creating Patriotic Association, the Moscow Patriarchate complied with the Chinese plan and granted full autonomy to the Orthodox Mission in China.

However, with the coming of the Cultural Revolution, the number of bishops and priests dropped to nil. Even today the situation of the Orthodox community is said to be “very bad”. There are no priests to attend to the needs of the faithful and only occasionally, on Sundays, do the latter come together to pray. None the less, there are 13 Chinese Orthodox seminarians, from Beijing, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, Shanghai and Tianjin, now studying at the Sretenskaya Theological Seminary in Moscow and at the Theological Academy in St. Petersburg.

The last Orthodox priest, 80-year old Alexander Du Lifu, passed away on December 16 of last year, in Beijing. According to sources in the Moscow Patriarchate, because he had no church at his disposal, Father Du “provided spiritual guidance in private.” Sometimes he was allowed to celebrate the liturgy in the Russian embassy in Beijing. The Moscow Patriarchate was allowed to use the Catholic cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady (Nantang) for his funeral.