IOANNIS: In the 1980's, after the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Orthodox
Church was forgotten, but in the 1990's, both the Moscow Patriarchate and
the Russian Church Abroad began paying attention to these small communities. Archbishop Hilarion of ROCOR in Australia has been to Beijing several times to baptize babies and old people in their homes and in the hotels,
and also to give them Holy Communion. He could not serve liturgy because
he is not native Chinese, but he did bring Holy Communion for the sick.
Also, Fr. Dionisy Pozdnyaev from the Moscow Patriarchate has been to
Beijing several times. Last Christmas he served a full vigil and liturgy in the
Russian Embassy, which is officially Russian territory.
RTE: Was this the first liturgy in China since the Cultural Revolution?
IOANNIS: For Beijing, I believe so. I heard that about fifty people confessed,
baptized their children and received Holy Communion. One of the
Orthodox from Beijing told me that after the service, an old man went back
home and recited the prayer of St. Simeon, "Now, lettest Thou Thy servant
depart in peace…" and then said to his children, "If God takes my soul this
night, I will not be sorry because I've received Holy Communion."
RTE: May God bless him.
IOANNIS: Yes, you see, the situation is slowly improving. Fr. Vladimir, a priest
under Archbishop Hilarion, has also been to Beijing; Fr. Dionisy has been to
Beijing and Harbin, to the town of Labudalin and even to several small villages in Manchuria and Mongolia, trying to help. There, the local government
gives more freedom to Orthodox people — there are several mixed Russian-Chinese villages and many people have some Russian blood. The local government wants to show good-will to the neighboring Russians, and in several
small villages they have allowed churches to be built. Five years ago, people
petitioned for a new Orthodox church be built in the town of Labudalin, and
it was. There is room for about three hundred people, but the church itself is
empty. It has no iconostasis, no holy table, nothing to serve with.
RTE: The government built the church for them?
IOANNIS: The government paid to have it built. But, of course, the people of
the village can only build the building. They cannot paint icons or consecrate an altar. Fr. Vladimir did what he could there without serving liturgy:
blessed the water, baptized, and gave Holy Communion. I'm sure that Fr.
Dionisy has been there also. In several Manchurian villages and also in Xinjiang, churches have been rebuilt. This is the situation in the north.
Harbin is also very interesting. For centuries, it was just a provincial town
in northeastern China, but grew rapidly when Russian emigres settled there
after the 1917 Russian Revolution. You can still see many old Russian-style
buildings. In the center of Harbin were thirty-six parish churches and two
monasteries. About ten or fifteen still remain.
RTE: Have any been reopened?
IOANNIS: Just one, Pokrov, dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God.
Also in Harbin was the Church of Hagia Sophia, the largest church in the
Far East, even bigger than the Orthodox cathedral of Tokyo. Also, St.
Nicholas, a wonderful wooden church that was the seat of the bishop; the
very famous and beautiful Church of the Annunciation; and the Iveron
chapel, but those three were destroyed.
RTE: And Hagia Sophia?
IOANNIS: I will tell you in a moment. In 1984, the government gave back one
church, dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God, which was built
by Ukrainians. After Pokrov was reopened, a new chapel, dedicated to the
Dormition of the Mother of God, was built in the Orthodox cemetery. At
that time there were two priests serving in Harbin. The morning Pokrov
reopened, Archimandrite Bai (I don't remember his Christian name) and
Fr. Gregory Zhu (Chiu) served liturgy and had a cross procession with icons.
About one hundred people attended the service chanting traditional hymns
in Slavonic and Chinese; not only natives of Harbin, but Orthodox from
cities and villages throughout Manchuria. Archimandrite Bai soon reposed,
but Fr. Gregory Zhu continued to serve by himself for sixteen years.
In October of 2000 I was in Beijing, arranging my visa for my first visit to
Greece. I very much wanted to meet Fr. Gregory, but when I arrived in
Harbin I was told, "We buried him last week." They showed me photos of his
funeral and said that the last time he had served was the previous Pascha.
RTE: Did he serve during the Cultural Revolution?
IOANNIS: No, of course not. He was forced to work at a secular job. There
have been no more priests after Fr. Gregory. Pokrov is still the only officially open Orthodox church in China. The small village churches that I
spoke of in Manchuria are legal, but without as many privileges as the
parish church of Pokrov. For the past two years, the faithful of Harbin have
had no priest, no liturgy. They just go to church to light a candle every
Sunday and read prayers by themselves.
RTE: You said that the Catholic churches recovered more quickly. Did many
Orthodox end up there?
IOANNIS: I know of only four who became Catholic. The Orthodox people
don't know much theology, they don't know church history, they don't know
about the filioque; they have simpler reasons for not going to the Catholic
church. For example, they think it is wrong that the Catholics make the cross
from the left to the right. After the Second Vatican Council, when the priest
and altar were turned to face west, towards the people, the Orthodox
thought, "How can he face the West, when the light comes from the East?"
and "How can he serve without an iconostasis?" Their reasons were simple,
practical ones, not theological.
There were also new martyrs in Harbin during the Cultural Revolution. I
only know one by name, Fr. Stephanos. After our 1949 Communist
Revolution, he left Harbin for Hong Kong and served there for several years.
Later, he felt strongly that he should return to mainland China. He went
back to Harbin and served until the Cultural Revolution in 1966. At the
beginning of the revolution he suffered at the hands of the Red Guards. This
is a very sad story because the Red Guards were basically teenagers, students from middle schools and universities. They were used by the wife of
Mao Zedong, and Mao himself, to destroy our traditional culture and many
innocent people. The students themselves were innocent…they were used. A
group of them went to the church and beat Fr. Stephanos with sticks for several hours until he died. His relics are buried in an Orthodox cemetery in the
countryside near Harbin, near the grave of Fr. Gregory Zhu. I was able to
visit his grave. Stephanos, means "crown," you know, and he really was
crowned by Christ.