Moscow (AsiaNews) – Patriarch Aleksej II of Moscow has recently criticised twice the People's Republic of China for the fate of China’s Orthodox Church, which is denied freedom of religion and deprived of clergy. At the same time, a Taiwanese delegation has arrived in Moscow to discuss developments and co-operation between the Orthodox Church and Taipei.
“This Church marks her [50th] anniversary with neither priest nor bishop, although there are still many thousands believers who are waiting for the return of pastoral care,” the Orthodox primate said at a reception given by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Tuesday evening.
This is the second time Patriarch Aleksej talks about the situation of Chinese Orthodoxy. The first time he spoke at a pre-Easter press conference, when he said that the Orthodox Church in China had been virtually “destroyed by the Cultural Revolution.”
A spokesperson for the Department for External Church Relations at the Moscow Patriarchate said that in 2007 three Russian Orthodox priests were sent to minister in China and that Easter liturgies were offered in Russia’s diplomatic missions in the country. Over 300 walked in an Easter procession in the Russian Embassy in Beijing and 120 more attended the Easter liturgy in the Russian Consulate General in Shanghai.
However, even if the congregations were multiethnic there were no Chinese citizens who are forbidden by law from attending such services.
Ironically, China’s ‘financial capital’ can count an Orthodox church among its many architectural jewels. But the outstanding building was taken over during the Cultural Revolution and now houses the city’s stock exchange.
Freedom of worship was instead discussed by Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, secretary for Inter-Orthodox Relations at the Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, and Angela Siu, head of the Representative Office in Moscow for the Taipei-Moscow Economic and Cultural Coordination Commission.
The two described their meeting as “prolonged and constructive” during which they discussed how to open a place of worship for Orthodox Christians living on the island, which mainland China considers a breakaway province.
For some analysts, the meeting constitutes a signal to mainland China, which does not recognise Christian Orthodoxy as an official religion like Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam.
The Moscow Patriarchate, which is in charge of China’s tiny Orthodox community, hopes that an official recognition might be forthcoming in 2008.
The Orthodox Church in China gained full autonomy from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1957, but with the Culture Revolution of 1966-67, the life of the local Orthodox community came to a virtual stop.
Currently, according to the External Church Relations Department of the Moscow Patriarchate there are an estimated 13,000 Orthodox Christians in the whole of China, 400 in the capital.
The Russian Orthodox Church arrived in China some 300 years ago, but its history has remained largely unknown.
Its first communities were made up of Russian immigrants concentrated in the north of the country. Currently most believers are still of Russian origin, living in four main locations: Harbin in Heilongjiang (where there is a parish dedicated to the protective mantle of the Mother of God), in Labdarin (Outer Mongolia), and in Kulj and Urumqi (Xinjiang).
China’s Cultural Revolution had devastating effects on Orthodox bishops and priests. Even today there are no local priests and believers have to meet on and off on Sundays to pray.
There are however 13 Chinese Orthodox seminarians studying at the Sretenskaya Theological Academy in Moscow and the Academy of St Petersburg.
The last local Orthodox priest, Alexander Du Lifu, 80, passed away in 2003 in Beijing.
According to information from the Patriarchate of Moscow, Father Du “gave spiritual direction privately” because he did not have a church. Sometimes he was allowed to celebrate the liturgy in the Russian embassy in Beijing. For his funeral, the Patriarchate of Moscow obtained permission to use the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (the Nantang).