12/09/2019, 13.58
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A Russian Orthodox community survives in Urumqi without a priest

by Vladimir Rozanskij

Members of the city’s small Russian Orthodox community meet every Sunday to pray listening to taped songs. Many belong to mixed Russian-Chinese and Russian-Uyghur families.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – A Russian teacher of foreign languages, Olga Vasilievna Kladova, talked to Nezavisimaya Gazeta about her experience in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, north-western China, where she went looking for the local Orthodox church.

Olga heard about the place for the first time in 2008 from a friend, and wanted to visit it. Urumqi residents belong to 13 nationalities, some of them Russians. The church is located inside a maze of small alleys in the Uyghur part of town.

Despite China’s policy of eliminating external religious symbols, the church still has a small golden onion dome, the unmistakable symbol of Russian church. A plaque on the church reads Orthodox Church of the city of Urumqi. To reach it one has to cross a semi-abandoned park, with the air usually smoky from tandoor (cylindrical clay) ovens used by local Uyghurs to cook food.

"When I went inside, I heard the chants of the Valaam monastery liturgy,” Olga said, “among the frescoed icons of the saints on the walls, but I did not see the priest. I thought he would come later, from behind the iconostasis, but after waiting several minutes I realised the church had no priest. The parishioners later told me that they have not really seen one, and that they learnt to sing and pray by listening to taped liturgies.”

Few people go to the church, except at Easter. The small liturgical hall is usually enough for the Sunday prayer meeting. On Sunday morning, tapes play the music of the Valaam choir, and the elders with few children light the candles in front of the icons as they pray, mixing Russian and Chinese, with Church Slavonic chants in the background.

The older parishioners came to the city before the Second World War, but most now belong to mixed families. “I spoke to Natalia, a Chinese woman in her 40s,” Olga explained. “She wears a beautiful orthodox cross sent to her by Russian relatives in Australia. She did not look Russian nor speak the language, but this did not stop her from feeling Russian. All the other members of the local community, who may have some drops of Russian blood, proudly claim to be Russian.”

“Vera, who was sitting at the candle table, was well into her eighties, and could not stand up during the service. Perhaps she is the only Russian-born parishioner left; she came here as a child and married a Chinese man, like most of the women who came with her.”

“Each of them passed down their distant memories of the motherland: the winter snow, the beauty of the girls. Each embellished their memories. Few men come to church, except for a couple of parish activists. One of them is the starosta, the community elder.”

Following tradition, the group gets together after the Sunday liturgy to drink hot tea on the second floor of the church. A table is covered with various cakes: Russian, Chinese, Uyghur. People use this opportunity to exchange news, mostly about their close Australian relatives.

At Easter the community booked an entire restaurant to break the strict Lenten fast. Only Russian food is allowed. People perform Russian dances and Russian songs with a Chinese accent. Even Natalia, even though she doesn’t speak Russian, can sing Russian songs by heart. Birthdays are celebrated the same way, especially for seniors.

Olga spent four years in Urumqi before going back to Russia, but every day she hears the voices of Vera, Nina, Zoya and Natalia, and those old recordings of the Valaam liturgy that every Sunday echo the sound of the Orthodox faith in Xinjiang.

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