RTE: Earlier you mentioned the Chinese new martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion. Will you tell us their story?

by the hand of Nana Quparadze
courtesy of OMHKSEA

IOANNIS: Yes. The first native Chinese Orthodox priest, New Martyr Mitrophan, wasn't ordained until 1870 or 1880, over a century after the mission began, but what is very interesting is that he was ordained by St. Nicholas of Tokyo, who was then the Russian bishop of Japan. Fr. Mitrophan was a very humble man. He refused ordination many times, saying, "I am just a simple, uneducated man, how can I become a priest? How can I stand before the fearful altar of God?" Finally, he obeyed the wishes of the mission authorities and the local parishioners. I'm not sure whether he went to Tokyo to receive the priesthood or if Bishop Nicholas came to Beijing.

After his ordination, Fr. Mitrophan worked hard for the mission, but he was often looked down on by both the Chinese and Russian Orthodox who said, "This priest doesn't have a theological education, he doesn't chant well." He didn't defend himself, but continued to serve and quietly preach. When he was about fifty, he began having problems with his memory and retired near the mission, receiving a half-salary pension. As far as I know, he was the only Chinese priest at that time.

In 1900, when the Boxer Rebellion broke out,[1] people encouraged Fr. Mitrophan to go to the Russian Embassy to take refuge, but he refused, saying, "Yes, as an Orthodox priest, my family and I can go to the Russian embassy, but who will protect my people? If the priest leaves, the flock may scatter. I don't know if they will be able to keep the faith." So, he stayed in church that night, serving an all-night vigil with his parishioners. They knew that anti-foreign mobs were rampaging through Beijing, and although a few apostatized out of fear, most of the Orthodox came to church to wait and pray.

RTE: They knew they were going to be killed?

The Holy Chinese Martyrs
of the Boxer Rebellion

IOANNIS: Yes, they knew. The mob finally arrived and seized Fr. Mitrophan. They told him, "You can no longer believe in Christ. You are Chinese, you have to sacrifice to the Chinese gods." Fr. Mitrophan answered, "My God, Jesus Christ, is not only for Russians, but for the Chinese and all the people of the world." They shouted, "If you don't do as we say, we will show you what we can do," and they killed his matushka and his children in front of him. "Now you see, your God Jesus Christ is not so powerful — He didn't save them." Fr. Mitrophan replied, "No, He saved them. I didn't lose them, because I will meet them in the heavenly kingdom." They said, "Where is the heavenly kingdom?" Fr. Mitrophan answered, "I see it. You cannot see it because you are not baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. If you truly believe in Jesus Christ, He will open your eyes and show you the heavenly kingdom." Then they gouged out his eyes and said, "And now, what do you see?" "Now, I see the heavenly kingdom more clearly, not with my bodily eyes, but with my soul and with my heart." They killed him then, cutting him into small pieces, because they were afraid that people would take his body as relics. Then they murdered all the Christians in the church: 222 men, women, and children.

Among the martyrs was his son's fiancee, Maria, who had not been in the church. The following day she went to the churchyard with a cloth to collect some of the blood as a relic, but the Boxers were still there and wounded her with a sword, saying, "If you deny your faith, you can keep your life." She replied, "I am very glad to die for Jesus Christ, like my husband and my father-in-law," and she did.

Afterwards, a few remaining Orthodox Christians collected the relics, but because the bodies had been cut into pieces, they didn't know who was who. They gathered the remains into boxes and buried them in a small memorial chapel in the Orthodox mission area of Beijing where, a year later, they built another chapel dedicated to the Holy Martyrs of Beijing.

RTE: Do people still go there to venerate the relics?

IOANNIS: I will tell you. In the middle of the chapel, in front of the royal doors, was the sepulchre containing the relics. People went there to pray and many miracles occurred through the intercession of the martyrs. This chapel existed until the 1960's, when it was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. I have heard that the relics were removed and that Orthodox Christians reburied them in the Russian cemetery. Of course, they could not say that these were relics, they just pretended that they were reburying the remains of relatives. The Russian cemetery itself was destroyed a few years later during a period of tension between the Soviet and Chinese communist governments. Now the cemetery is covered by a golf course.

RTE: And the relics of the martyrs are still there, under the golf course?

IOANNIS: Yes, although we don't know where exactly. We would have to buy the golf course to have the right to dig it up, and this is nearly impossible. Sometimes, we walk around the golf course and pray, but we can't have an official service.

RTE: At least you know where they are.

IOANNIS: Yes, and I believe that we will find them someday, just as St. Helena found the Cross. We will pray and the new martyrs will help.

RTE: Of course. Were there any small pieces of relics kept elsewhere?

IOANNIS: No, they were all buried there for safekeeping during the Cultural Revolution. No one knew that the cemetery would be destroyed.

[1] The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was a nationalistic uprising that attempted to drive all foreigners from China. Violent mobs attacked foreigners throughout the country and rampaged through Peking (Beijing) in July and August. The rebellion was not without reason: forty years earlier the English had occupied Peking and burned part of the city (including the imperial summer palace) when Chinese officials attempted to block English opium trade in China. The European Christian community was particularly under attack because of its undisguised support of European economic and political interests. Protestant missionaries had involved themselves in Chinese politics, occupied civil positions as magistrates and judges, and often required Chinese converts to take on Western attitudes and dress.

"Boxer" was the English name given to a Chinese secret society that practiced "boxing and calisthenic rituals" (perhaps a form of martial arts) that they believed would make them impervious to bullets. Support for them grew in Northern China during the late 19th century, when the nation was suffering from growing poverty and forced to grant humiliating concessions to Western powers. In June 1900, an international relief force was dispatched to deal with the growing threat of the Boxers. The dowager empress, Cixi, ordered imperial forces to block its advance; the conflict escalated and many Europeans and Chinese Christians in Beijing were killed. Hostilities ended with massive reparations paid to the U.S, Germany, and other foreign powers. Although she professed political sympathy towards the Boxers (in part to secure her own position) the empress sent much covert relief to Europeans trapped by the fifty-five day siege.