Beijing (AsiaNews) - Chinese state media have characterised the Russian Orthodox Patriarch's visit to Beijing as "historic". They also have reported at great length the "frank and cordial" talks between the head of the Russian Church and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Although state atheism is still the official line in the People's Republic, the new Communist leader described as "important" the effort by the Patriarchate to improve relations between the two nations. He also said that Kirill will be called to play a "bigger role" in their development.
The first visit by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in China was front page news on the People's Daily. "Patriarch Kirill's China visit, as part of religious exchanges between China and Russia, will help deepen mutual understanding," the paper wrote.
Although the two nations drifted apart after Deng Xiaoping came to power, the rising 'fifth generation' of Chinese Communist leaders appears eager to develop relations with Moscow to counter a worsening relationship with the United States.
During the talks, Xi has asked the patriarch to convey his greetings and best wishes to Russian President Vladimir Putin whom he met last March in Moscow during his first official visit.
With these two high-level meetings, so close in time, a new phase in bilateral relations seems to be starting.
During his visit, which ends on Wednesday, Kirill will meet Chinese other government leaders, as well as leaders of the country's Christian communities and top officials in the Religious Affairs Bureau.
Although China's Orthodox Church became independent from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1950s, the death of Bishop Simeon of Beijing and Basel of Shanghai a decade later left it without a leadership. At present, it also has no functioning clergy and believers cannot participate in regular religious services, except for those held in the chapel inside the Russian Embassy in Beijing.
Many hope that this visit will break the ice and persuade Chinese authorities to grant the Orthodox Church official status, like Catholicism and Christianity (which Beijing considers separate from the former), Islam, Buddhism and Taoism.
In the past, the Patriarchate criticised the Chinese government for this situation. Today however, things seem different. With last year's visit by Metropolitan Hilarion, who acts as the patriarchate's 'foreign minister', a new page has been turned.
On that occasion, the Orthodox leader also met Ma Yinglin, an illegally nominated bishop who heads the so-called Chinese Council of Catholic Bishops, which is not recognised by the Holy See.