Русский | "DECR Communication Service MP", Oct. 13, 2003
About Orthodoxy in China
English Translation by Nina Tkachuk Dimas

The secretary for inter-orthodox relations of MP DECR, Archpriest Nikolai Balashov answered RIA "Novosti" questions

At a meeting with participants of the Bishops Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, President Putin, in particular, spoke about his intention, during the course of his visit to China, to raise the problem of consecrating the Orthodox temple built there, for which it has been impossible to deliver an iconostasis and church items for several years. For whom was this temple constructed? For the Chinese who would convert? Or, are there already Orthodox believers there?

Orthodox believers have been in China from at least the XVII century, when by command of Emperor Kāngxī (康熙), the Chinese armies took the Albazin border fortress, and its garrison together with "the married cathedral priest", Maxim, were taken into Chinese captivity. It is actually Fr. Maxim who initiated the history of the Russian Spiritual Mission to China, officially founded by Peter I in 1712. By the way, for a century and a half, this mission also carried out the role of a diplomatic representative and the present Russian Embassy in Beijing is located on its territory.

Mission members managed for centuries to preserve the Orthodox faith among the descendants of the Albazin Cossacks, who intermixed with the Chinese and Manchurian peoples, and also to convert to Orthodoxy a small part of the local population (by 1918, the flock totaled about 10,000 Chinese), for whom the Sacred Scripture, texts of divine services, and the works of the holy fathers were translated into Chinese.

It was actually the Russian missionaries in China who laid the foundations of our country's oriental studied, and accomplished much in the field of diplomacy. One can say, that partly because of their work, Russia and China were never at war. Unfortunately, the work of the mission was interrupted in 1954, due to political circumstances of that time. During this period, the mission was in charge of about 100 Orthodox temples in different parts of China. Most of them were destroyed during the years of the "Cultural Revolution".

What became of the Orthodox Church and Orthodox believers in China when the mission closed? How many Orthodox now live in that country? Are there priests there?

After the mission was abolished, the Holy Synod in Moscow adopted a decision to establish the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church. Its leader was a native Chinese, Bishop Vasily (Shuan) of Beiing, who was consecrated in Russia in 1957. He, as well as Simeon, Bishop of Shanghai, died during the 1960s. The last Chinese priest to conduct divine services, Father Grigory Zhu, died in 2000. He served in the Church of the Protection in Harbin which was re-opened in 1986. Last year, believers in Beijing buried the last Orthodox priest who was resident in the Chinese capital, Father Alexander Du. As to the present number of Orthodox among Chinese citizens, these are estimated variously -- from 7 to 15 thousand people.

How many Orthodox temples have been preserved?

I know of 12 church buildings in different parts of China. Of these three (in Xinjiang and in Inner Mongolia) have been re-built during the last decade, to replace those destroyed during the "Cultural Revolution". Moreover, the construction was carried out with the support of the Chinese government. One more temple in Chuguchak is still under construction. Several temples were restored in the '90s, also at government expense. Not one temple remains in Beijing, except for the Church of the Dormition, located on the territory of the Russian embassy. Unfortunately, that [church] building still houses embassy garage. The Embassy's reception hall also was a house church. There at the present time, several times annually, divine services are conducted for diplomats and our compatriots; a priest, sent from Russia, serves.

In Shanghai there are two well preserved temples built by Russian emigrants in the years prior to the second World War. One of these temples houses a French restaurant, and the other - a night club. We hope that the situation will change soon -- in July of this year China's ambassador in Russia, Mr. Liú Gǔchāng (刘古昌), assured Metropolitan Kirill that the entertainment institutions will in the near future be ejected from the churches. In Harbin, a temple is open to the faithful; parishioners assemble on holy days and pray, as they might, without a priest. Last summer a priest from the Yekaterinburg diocese was sent there who, with permission of local authorities, conducted divine services in this temple for two weeks. We hope that such practice will continue.

And that temple, which was discussed at the meeting with President Putin -- are services conducted there?

For the time being, unfortunately, no. The church which Bishop Yevstafiy mentioned is located in Labdarin (also called É'ěrgǔnà). It is in the Three-River area, in Inner Mongolia. Several thousand Orthodox live there; prior to the "Cultural Revolution" there were 18 temples there. And so, instead of them, local authorities built a new one in 1999. Thus far the church is completely empty.

In 2000 the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church charged Bishop Yevstafiy, by way of brotherly help to Chinese believers, to deliver to this temple the interior church furnishings, and to agree with Chinese authorities about its consecration. Everything that is necessary, including an iconostasis, has been obtained. Funds were allocated by the Most Holy Patriarch Alexy. But it was not possible to deliver the church cargo to China -- and for 4 years now, it is stored in the small border town of Priargunsk, because Chinese customs officials await a special permission from higher authorities.

We hope that the president's visit will help to give momentum to resolving this stalled process.

But nevertheless, who will serve in Chinese Orthodox temples?

18 students from various regions of China are studying in the Russian Orthodox Church's theological schools. Some of them, we believe, will soon be ready for ordination to a priestly rank. As yet we are unclear whether they will get permission to engage in religious activity in their native land, but, of course, we hope for the best.

Recently signs of a more attentive attitude on the part of the Chinese authorities to the needs of Orthodox believers have been observed. This was confirmed during the recent (in August of this year) visit to Beijing by a church delegation from Russia led by Bishop Mark of Yegorevsk. There have been negotiations with PRC government representatives on religious affairs, and also the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It was said that the Chinese side does not object to officially registering an Orthodox community by local residents in Beijing. As to priests from Russia - this so far is a complicated matter connected with features of Chinese legislation. But nevertheless we hope that a positive development in the relationship of our countries and peoples will allow us to find an acceptable temporary solution -- until the life of the Autonomous Chinese Orthodox Church is completely revived.

The interview was conducted by Olga Lipich
On materials of the "RIA novosti" agency