SCMP, Sunday, May 8, 2005
Orthodox Easter rite lacks a priest

For the first time in 48 years, Chinese Orthodox Christians have held an Easter service accompanied by a choir - but without a priest.

Led by a layman, the service in Beijing drew some 90 worshippers from Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province , who were tightly supervised by central and local religious affairs bureaus.

An Orthodox priest from Hong Kong, Father Dionisy Pozdnyaev, was asked to wait outside the church during the 1-1/2 hour service.

By the Julian calendar the Orthodox Easter fell on Sunday, May 1, but the service was held in St Michael's Catholic Church a day later. The congregation consisted mainly of descendants of Russian Cossacks from the Albazin fortress on the Amur River, who were taken prisoner by Chinese troops in the 17th century. They served as imperial guards, intermarried with the Chinese but kept their Orthodox faith.

The Orthodox cathedral in Beijing became enclosed in the embassy compound of the Soviet Union in 1957 and was off-limits to ordinary Chinese citizens.

Since the last priest in Beijing, Aleksandr Du Lifu, died in 2003, the congregation has been without a priest. His niece, Madrona Wang Linru, who has been active in maintaining the Orthodox tradition, has campaigned to have a church and a priest.

Celebrating Easter according to the Orthodox rite was a deeply moving experience for the congregation, many of whom had no memory of the service.

"Regrettably, the service was incomplete without holy communion," Ms Wang said.

The State Administration of Religious Affairs rejected a request that the service be led by a Russian priest, although several Russians were allowed to sing in the choir.

The Chinese Orthodox community finds itself in a catch-22 situation: it cannot have its own church without a Chinese priest, and the priest must be ordained by a Chinese bishop in China. The future of the Orthodox church in China depends on how this problem is resolved.

Mainland officials remain extremely wary of foreign meddling in Chinese religious affairs.

There are fears that concessions to the tiny Orthodox community will inspire other religions, such as Islam, to demand equal treatment.

The Chinese authorities have suggested several times that Orthodox Christians register in the Catholic church. The "merger" was politely turned down by the small but fiercely independent community.

Ms Wang said the Chinese Orthodox Christians were grateful for the opportunity to celebrate the most important holiday in the church calendar.

"It gave us hope for having our own registered church," she said. "The first step is to resolve the ordination issue."