photo by K. Pozdnyaev

IOANNIS: Another remarkable thing is that in 1998, Harbin citizens (not Orthodox people, but non-Christians) asked the government to restore the great Orthodox church of Hagia Sophia, which had been closed in the 1960's. For the people of Harbin, Hagia Sophia is like Notre Dame to the Parisians. They said, "We love this church and we remember her glorious past. We are not Christians, but we respect her. She is the symbol of our city and our life. We have lived and played around her since we were children, and now she is falling down and we want her to be saved." There were so many requests that the government listened.

I was very moved when the newspapers reported that the authorities had decided to restore Hagia Sophia. A box was put in front of the church and thousands of people, most of them non-Christians, stood in long lines to put money into it. Many students, even small children, held boxes in the street to collect donations. They said, "We all remember the glory of this great church, we love her as our mother and our grandmother." And so, the government rebuilt the church.

RTE: May God bless them.

IOANNIS: Yes. After this there were different ideas about what should be done. Many people in Harbin said, "It should be given back to the Orthodox Church because she belonged to the Church, and she is a church." But it was impossible at the time. The government replied, "We have paid a lot of money, and we are not an Orthodox government."

RTE: So, they rebuilt it as a cultural monument and not as a church?

IOANNIS: Yes. Also, Fr. Gregory Zhu, the only priest in Harbin, was very ill and he had no energy to take over the duties of such a large church. At that time, the Moscow Patriarchate offered to send a priest for the church, but the government was very cautious about foreigners coming in. So, for different reasons, they refused. However, they did agree to rebuild it in an Orthodox style, exactly as the original, and they put a golden cross on every dome.

RTE: That's as much a miracle as the Russian government giving back Russia's churches in the 1990's.

IOANNIS: For me, it is an important symbol. Although Hagia Sophia is still a museum, the government did put up crosses — the symbol of Christian victory — on the domes of the church. They even asked the faithful of the parish church of Pokrov to help them with the correct design of the Russian Orthodox cross. This is like the conversion of Emperor Constantine, and I believe that through dynamis, by the spiritual power of the holy cross, the Church will revive.

The government not only put crosses on the dome, but they also remade the bells. Six large bells were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and only one small one survived. The new bells were recast by non-Christians, but the government commissioned them to follow the style of the small remaining bell to cast the other six. Now they have one very large and five smaller bells, which they arranged in their original order in the bell-tower.

Also, the authorities allowed the teachers and the students of the art school to paint an icon of the Deisis — the Lord enthroned in the middle, with the Mother of God and St. John the Baptist on either side — on the front wall of the church. Inside the church on the right, they painted a large icon of Christ and inscribed the Lord's name in the Slavonic style. To the left is an icon of the Theotokos. In the narthex they painted the Martyr Sophia with her three daughters, and Emperor Constantine and St. Helena on the pillars. They were all carefully copied from early Russian icons, using the Byzantine-Kievan style.

Another area of the church they use as a museum, where they have a display of historical photos of the original church and old Harbin. The original fresco in the cupola was half-destroyed, but the government hasn't allowed it to be restored yet. They say, "We do not yet have the expertise to repair it, and we want to wait and repair it in the Christian way." You can still see the old fragments, like in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

So, this is the situation of Hagia Sophia today. Before Pascha of this year, I read articles by Catholics requesting that the church be given back to the Orthodox, and I've also read editorials by non-Christians in the city newspapers saying, "We have rebuilt Hagia Sophia, but we have only clothed her, she does not yet have a soul. We hope that she will soon resurrect with her true soul — the Divine Liturgy."

RTE: Incredible.

IOANNIS: Yes. Now I want to tell you another interesting story. In Harbin, there is an Orthodox church with red walls, also very beautiful, but more in the Baroque style with Russian domes called Alexiev…

RTE: After St. Alexis, Man of God?

IOANNIS: I'm not sure. It is presently being used by the Catholics of Harbin because the Catholic cathedral was destroyed. The Catholics of Harbin were not as numerous as the Orthodox and they only had a few churches, so after the Cultural Revolution, when the Catholics wanted to rebuild, the government said, "There are many old Orthodox Churches, take this one." But the Catholics went to their bishop and said, "Don't do this. This church belongs to the Orthodox, it is protected by their own saint and we can't take it." The bishop was sympathetic but said, "What can I do? I must follow the government's order."

Even now, the local Catholics don't like this and they tell us, "This church must become Orthodox again." The Catholic priest doesn't serve mass in the same place that the Orthodox served liturgy, nor does he enter the old sanctuary. They divided the church into two floors, and he serves on the upper floor.