South China Morning Post | July 7, 2006
Visit points to revival of Orthodox church

Mainland officials at Moscow religious talks vow to 'resolve issues of concern'

Byline: Staff Reporter

China's top official responsible for religious policies has sent out a strong signal that the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church on the mainland is making strides.

In a meeting with Moscow Patriarch Aleksei II on Tuesday, State Administration of Religious Affairs director Ye Xiaowen pledged to "resolve issues of concern" to the Orthodox church, according to information released by the Moscow Patriarchy.

Mr Ye led a delegation to a conference in Moscow on religion in modern society, organised by an inter-faith group in Russia, ahead of the first G8 meeting to be hosted by Russia next month.

In his public appearance, Mr Ye made it clear that China would not compromise on the "independence" principle. The Orthodox Christian church must be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating along the same lines as the official Catholic and Protestant churches. As if to underscore that point, Mr Ye's delegation included Ma Yinglin , the new bishop of Yunnan , whose appointment was made without the Vatican's approval.

Mr Ye expressed his thanks to Russia for not inviting the Dalai Lama to the conference, saying the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader was "not a simple religious activist, but one who intends to split the nation".

Last year, a visit by the Dalai Lama to Russia prompted the central government to put on hold a process of improving conditions for those practising the Russian Orthodox faith in China.

There are an estimated 12,000 Orthodox Christians on the mainland. Many of the 200 or so Orthodox Christians in Beijing trace their ancestry to Russian prisoners of war dating back to the late 17th century. But since the death of Orthodox priest Aleksandr Du Lifu in 2003, no clergy or congregation have been approved by the state.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has appealed to President Hu Jintao to grant freedom of worship to the Orthodox Christians. The State Administration of Religious Affairs has set up an office of Orthodox affairs, headed by Wang Yanming, who was a member of the Moscow delegation.

The revival of the Orthodox church hinges on the formation of a Chinese clergy, but authorities have been adamant that Chinese priests must be ordained by Chinese bishops.

Dionisy Pozdnyaev, an Russian Orthodox priest based in Hong Kong, said Mr Ye's visit was important in breaking the ice and it remained to be seen what would follow.

As a gesture of goodwill, the Shanghai government has evicted a disco bar/restaurant from the premises of an Orthodox church. Deputy Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev thanked Mr Ye for the preservation effort.

In recent months, China has taken steps to raise its international profile on religion. It hosted a global Buddhism summit in Hangzhou in April.

Just before leaving for Moscow, Mr Ye received two top Vatican officials in Beijing. No details of the meeting have been disclosed, but it was understood to have been called to repair relations strained by the ordination of bishops without Vatican approval.