Beijing is sending positive signals to Orthodox church

Chinese authorities, seen as repressive toward Roman Catholics, are giving increasingly encouraging signals to the country's small Russian Orthodox community.

Orthodox followers in China hope they will soon be able to practice their faith normally after being forced into hibernation for many years, partly because of a lack of active priests.

The situation was due to be raised during Russian President Vladimir Putin's official visit to China last week, according to religious sources in Moscow, although this was not confirmed.

There are an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Russian Orthodox Christians in China, either descendants of Russian immigrants or converted Chinese.

Most of them are in Inner Mongolia and around Urumqi, the capital of northwestern Xinjiang Province, although there are also a few hundred in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Harbin.

The Chinese Orthodox church reached its peak in the mid-1950s when it became autonomous and had two bishops who oversaw an estimated 20,000 faithful. However, the church was to suffer much at the hands of the Red Guard, which drove it underground in 1966.

The two bishops died in the 1960s and have never had any successors.

China's Orthodox community has since diminished, with many expecting it to disappear altogether after the death of the last active priest in December.

But, benefiting from the current healthy political climate between Moscow and Beijing, the Russian patriarchate has taken steps to revive the faith in the country.

The most important of these was the decision by Beijing to allow 18 Chinese students to undertake studies in seminaries of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

"If they are allowed to fulfil their priesthoods in China by the Administration for Religious Affairs, one day they will become bishops and be able to ordain priests. Orthodoxy will thus return in China," said Russian businessman Dmitry Napara, who is delighted with the move.

Last June, China permitted an Orthodox monk from Alapayevsk, in Russia's Ural Mountains, to celebrate mass in northeastern Harbin, which is probably China's most Russian-influenced city.

The church has remained open in Harbin, where the faithful have had to make do with services held by laymen since the death of their priest more than four years ago.

In another gesture from Beijing, two Orthodox churches in Shanghai, one of which had been converted into a nightclub, will be returned to "more serious" use, according to Napara.

It was likely that one of them would be developed into an arts centre devoted to the history of the Russian presence in China, he says.

Napara also said the pragmatic Chinese may see the activities of the church in Harbin as an opportunity to attract tourists.