KESTON NEWS SERVICE Issue 10, Article 15, 11 October 2000
by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Russian Orthodox Patriarch ALEKSI is preparing the text of a letter to Chinese President JIANG ZEMIN to ask him to allow a priest from Russia to work in the beleaguered Orthodox parish in the city of Harbin in China's north-eastern Heilongjiang Province, Keston News Service has learnt. The Moscow Patriarchate's longstanding desire to send a priest to help minister in the Harbin parish of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God - where services have not been held since the start of this year - has become more urgent since the death on 21 September of parish priest Father GREGORY ZHU SHIPU, the last serving Orthodox priest in the whole of China.

The Harbin parish - which like all Chinese Orthodox parishes continued to serve the liturgy in Old Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church - has some 200 faithful, although recent visitors to the city report that only approximately 20 regularly come to church on Sundays. The city - which once housed a large Russian emigre population - had 23 Orthodox churches serving 140,000 believers in 1949, but that number has steadily dwindled since the installation of the Communist government. All Harbin's Orthodox parishes were closed in 1966 at the start of the Cultural Revolution, but the Protecting Veil church was allowed to reopen in October 1984.

Father DIONISI (POZDNYAYEV), a long-time China watcher in the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, confirmed to Keston by telephone on 10 October that a letter to the Chinese president is being drafted for despatch `in the nearest future'. Although the text of the letter would remain confidential, Father Dionisi explained that in it the Patriarch would ask the Chinese authorities to abide by their own laws and to allow the request by the Harbin parish that a priest be sent from Russia to be met. According to Father Dionisi, religious organisations in China are allowed to invite religious personnel from abroad, but so far the Chinese authorities have refused to allow a Russian Orthodox priest to settle in China to conduct parish ministry.

Contacted by telephone on 10 October, GONG JIANWEI, press attache at the Chinese embassy in Moscow, told Keston that he knew nothing of the death of Father Gregory in Harbin, nor of any desire by the Moscow Patriarchate to send a priest to minister in the Harbin parish. `It is the first time I hear about this, so I cannot comment,' he declared. However, Gong confirmed to Keston on 11 October that he had sought clarification from Beijing on whether the Russian Orthodox Church would be allowed to send a priest and will report back when he gets a response. Keston also enquired of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing, but is awaiting a response.

Father Dionisi noted with sadness that because of the lack of another priest, the funeral of Father Gregory had not been conducted `as a funeral of a priest should have been'. He explained that he had himself been in Beijing at that time `on business' and - despite a request from the parishioners - had been refused permission to travel to Harbin to conduct the funeral by the Religious Affairs Bureau of Heilongjiang Province. Father Gregory's funeral and burial on 23 September had to be conducted by a layman. Gong at the Chinese embassy in Moscow was unaware that Father Dionisi had been prevented from conducting Father Gregory's funeral and was unable to comment on the reasons for the ban.

On 27 September an official from the Harbin city Religious Affairs Bureau visited the church to discuss the parish's future. The parishioners declared that they wished for a new priest, although Father Dionisi told Keston that he feared the Harbin authorities had plans to turn the church into a museum, as one other Orthodox church in the city has been.

The Moscow Patriarchate appears determined to press its case to be allowed to meet the request of the Harbin parishioners while observing the `spirit and letter' of Chinese law which, it says, `proclaims in the area of religious policy the observance of the principles of freedom of conscience, non-interference by the secular authorities into the affairs of the Church, the observance of the religious freedoms of Chinese and foreign citizens on the territory of the Chinese People's Republic, as well as the securing of the independence of Chinese religious organisations and their protection from foreign interference'.

The Moscow Patriarchate stresses that it recognised the autonomy of the Chinese Orthodox Church in 1957 and continues to recognise this autonomy. It states that any granting of permission to Russian priests to serve in China at the request of local Orthodox believers would not undermine this commitment.

Father Dionisi told Keston that the Harbin parish had been the only one in China with a priest, although an open Orthodox church also exists in Urumqi, the capital of China's north-eastern Xinjiang Autonomous Region. He added that there is an ethnic Chinese Orthodox priest, Father ALEXANDER, living in Beijing, but he has been denied permission by the authorities to work as a priest. (END)

Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.