RTE: Could someone become a bishop outside of China, and then go back to China to ordain priests?

IOANNIS: Yes, of course, if we elect someone to be bishop, he will have to be ordained outside of China, but the first step is to ordain two or three priests to replace Fr. Gregory Zhu, because the Pokrov church is still the only officially recognized Orthodox parish in China.

RTE: If you or someone else were ordained in a foreign country, would the government allow you to serve?

IOANNIS: I think so. As long as we are native Chinese citizens and it is obvious that we are loyal, that we are not spies, that we have not been sent by another government, I think we could serve in China.

The government itself is trying to find a solution for this situation because after the death of Fr. Gregory, the people of his parish asked many times for a priest, for permission to bring one in. The government can do nothing, however, because of the law. Some officials in the religion department have even said, "You can ordain a priest yourselves," but of course we cannot do this. We are not Protestants. Until we have our own bishop we cannot say that China has a true apostolic link as a national church.

As I said, the first step is to ordain native priests, and the second is to rebuild the churches, to reawaken those who were Orthodox by birth, or as part of their family heritage, and to receive new people who want to join us. It all goes hand in hand. In order to be recognized by the government, to receive permission to rebuild and function openly, the Ministry of Religion needs to see that there are many Orthodox Christians — worldly numbers, not only spiritual power, unfortunately.

In Shanghai, for example, if our community was as large as the Catholic and Protestant communities, the government could not refuse our requests to take back our churches. What could they do? Push us into the river? Of course not.

RTE: Do you see ordination coming through different Orthodox patriarchates?

IOANNIS: Of course. Any Orthodox patriarchate has a right to start a mission in China. I respect the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Church Outside of Russia, as well as the Greeks, Antiochians and Serbs, but the problem is, as a Chinese Orthodox Christian, I'm afraid of a situation where foreign Orthodox will not only bring Orthodoxy, but also jurisdictional fighting. This would be very bad. This is not like America with its many immigrants. In any one geographical area we are all the same race, we speak the same language, we have almost identical cultural customs. It would be very stupid to fight among ourselves as to who is better.

RTE: From what I understand, that was one of the problems that led to the Boxer Rebellion. There was a colonial attitude on the part of many of the foreigners, including some of the Christian missionaries, and this offended the Chinese.

IOANNIS: Yes, but the Orthodox martyrs were killed purely for their faith. The Orthodox community was the smallest Christian group in China; they were not Western, they were native Chinese and Russian. It is true, though, that western missionaries did not always respect Chinese culture. Spanish or French priests often tried to mold Christian communities along Spanish and French models as in Latin America. It was the same in the Philippines: they built a Latin nation in Asia. I am very glad that China didn't become a second Philippines, where you can no longer find the original local culture. That was very sad for me to see.

RTE: Did the Orthodox do that, too?

IOANNIS: No. First, because the Orthodox have traditionally followed a more humble way to preach the gospel. The liturgy was always put into the local language as quickly as possible, and people's cultural traditions were respected. Look at the icon of Jesus Christ — every Orthodox country in the world has icons in which He looks like a native of that country. They use their own artistic traditions. Second, even if Russian clergy at the Chinese mission had wanted to impose their culture, they didn't have enough money or clergy. It was a very small community.

rebuilt Church
in Labudalin

Actually, I hope that more and more Orthodox Christians living outside of China will become involved in mission work for the Chinese people. There are many Protestants and Roman Catholics working in China, but not many Orthodox. We not only need money, but we need help in many ways. For example, in Labudalin the government helped rebuild the Orthodox Church but there is no way to get icons, altars, an iconostasis. If people could donate icons and church goods this would be very beneficial. And again, although we welcome Orthodox from everywhere to assist our small and poor Chinese Orthodox community, please leave your jurisdictional differences behind.

The other thing we can do is to pray for you.


IOANNIS: Yes, that is the most important thing.