Moscow (AsiaNews) - The Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill arrived today in Beijing, the first leg of his official visit to China, which ends June 15.
In the Chinese capital, "The head of the Russian Orthodox Church will meet with government leaders in China, leaders of religious groups, and also with the Chinese officials responsible for religious affairs," the Patriarchate Press Service said.
In addition to celebrating Mass in the Cathedral Pokrovsky in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, where there is a strong Russian presence, Kirill will meet members of the Orthodox community in China at the Russian Embassy compound in Beijing.
In the capital, he will also visit the Church of the Assumption, site of the Museum of the Russian Spiritual Mission to the country.
During the visit, the Chinese edition of a book by Kirill titled Freedom and Responsibility: In Search of Harmony. Human rights and the dignity of the person will be presented. It is published by the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate in association with the Russian-Chinese Business Council.
"The visit of His Holiness the Patriarch is aimed at further strengthening the friendly relations between China and Russia," Interfax-Religion reported, citing the Patriarchate Press Service.
In fact, Orthodoxy plays a special role in the history of their bilateral relations. Orthodox clergymen have been in China since 1685 as part of the Russian Orthodox Mission to that country and have done a lot to bring Russia and China closer" (see overview of the history of the Orthodox Mission).
Kirill's visit comes less than two months after China's new leader, Xi Jinping, held his maiden foreign trip as president of the People's Republic to Russia, on 22-24 March of this year.
For analysts, this is a significant choice because it shows that Beijing wants good relations with Moscow to contain US power in the Asia-Pacific region.
The two countries see eye to eye on several major international issues (Syria, Iran, North Korea) and have boosted cooperation in trade (more than US$ 80 billion in 2012) and energy (Russia's oil giant Rosneft signed a deal with China's CNPC to double oil supplies).
When Russian President Putin met with Xi, he said, "We are working together, helping to shape a new, more just world order, ensure peace and security, defend basic principles of international law".
In China, 15,000 Orthodox believers are waiting for a pastor (overview)
The pastoral activity of the Russian Orthodox Church in China dates back to the 17th century, when Rev Maxim Leontiev arrived in Beijing. The Russian Spiritual Mission was established in 1713, and by 1949 could boast of more than 100 churches.
In 1956, the Holy Synod granted autonomy to China's Orthodox Church, but the Cultural Revolution wiped out all prelates and priests alike.
Since the death of Simeon, Bishop of Shanghai, in 1965, the local church has not had any a high-ranking representative. In 1997, the Synod of the Russian Church decided to reassert its jurisdiction in China.
At present, China's Orthodox Church has up to 15,000 members. Most of them live in Heilongjiang Province (Harbin), Inner Mongolia (Labdarin), Xinjiang (Kulj and Urumqi), Beijing and Shanghai. However, there are no priests (the last one died in 2003) to serve the faithful who are reduced to meeting on rare occasions on Sundays.
A group of Orthodox Chinese are studying at Sretenskaya Theological Academy in Moscow and at the Academy of St Petersburg with the intention of returning to China.
For the main celebrations of Christmas and Easter, Russian priests conduct services inside Russia's embassy and consulates.