04/09/2021, 12.49
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Moscow Patriarchate reaches out to Orthodox Church in China

by Vladimir Rozanskij

China has four "autonomous" Orthodox churches, no recognition of the Church as an organization. The patriarchate is allowed to assist thanks to a 1997 agreement with the Chinese authorities. Dmitry Petrovsky, and his report on "Russian-Chinese negotiations on Orthodox issues in China".

Moscow (AsiaNews) - The mission of the Russian Church diaspora also includes China and was discussed last March 25 at a conference at the Orthodox University "San Tikhon" in Moscow, the largest ecclesiastical institute in the country.

One of the speakers, Dmitry Petrovsky, a collaborator of the Patriarchal Department for External Relations, gave a report on the Russian-Chinese negotiations on Orthodox matters in China. On April 7, he commented on it with the correspondents of Blagovest-Info.

In public opinion it is difficult to believe in a "Chinese Orthodoxy", given the very restrictive regime of religious freedom in the People's Republic of China. Petrovsky explains instead that the prospects of the Church in Beijing are not so prohibitive. The Orthodox link the spread of Christianity in the Land of the Rising Sun to the preaching of the apostle Thomas, recalling ancient monuments such as the Nestorian stele of the eighth century in Chang'an (later Xi'an), the capital of China under the Tang dynasty.

Russia came into contact with China following the Tatar-Mongol invasion of the heirs of Genghis Khan in the 13th century, when the Russian prince Alexander Nevsky also went to Karakorum several times to introduce himself to the Khurultai, the assembly of the Khans, and visiting the territories of China, where the Yuan dynasty was affirmed.

In 1685, with the mission of the priest Maksim Leont’ev, the Russian mission officially opened in Beijing, where in 1696 the first church of St. Sophia was consecrated. The Orthodox presence was very important for the hundreds of thousands of Russians who emigrated to China after the 1917 revolution.

The prospect of an autonomous Chinese Orthodox Church arose after the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, when the Moscow Patriarch Alexei I entrusted the task to the Russian Archbishop of Beijing Viktor (Svyatin), even if there were very few Orthodox priests of Chinese ethnicity.

The first of these to obtain episcopal dignity was the bishop of Tianjin Simeon (Du) in 1951, and in 1954 the Chinese Orthodox Church was established, which obtained autonomy from the patriarchate of Moscow two years later.

Over 100 churches and outbuildings have been transferred to state ownership, except for the territory of the Church of the Holy Martyrs of the Soviet Embassy in Beijing, which was however destroyed. It contained the relics of the Chinese martyrs, as well as those of some members of the imperial family, killed by the Soviets in Alapaev (today in Kyrgyzstan) in 1918.

The Chinese Orthodox mission survived outside the borders of Communist China, with the formation of the Orthodox Church in Japan, which in turn gained autonomy from Moscow.

In China, however, there was an agreement with the Communist authorities, which led in 1957 to the ordination of the bishop of Beijing Vasilij (Yao). The Chinese Orthodox Church was almost silenced following the Cultural Revolution, but in the 1980s a slow rebirth began, with the sending of Russian priests to Harbin, where in 1984 Father Grigorij (Chu) obtained state registration to exercise the ministry. The first Moscow Orthodox hierarch to visit China again in 1993 was the then Metropolitan of Smolensk Kirill (Gundjaev), the current patriarch of Moscow.

Currently, as Petrovsky explains, the Chinese Orthodox Church lacks bishops and is assisted by a small number of priests. The patriarchate of Moscow continues to play a subsidiary function of assistance, thanks to a 1997 agreement with the Chinese authorities.

Moreover, the Russian Church now faces competition from the patriarchate of Constantinople, with which it has suspended ecclesial communion. In 1996 Constantinople founded the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and South East Asia, which also extends to the Chinese territory. The dispute between Moscow and Constantinople over China thus predates the conflict of recent years.

In 2013, Patriarch Kirill visited China again, 20 years after his first visit, and as Petrovsky points out, "to date he is the only world religious leader to have met the president of the People's Republic of China". Kirill then celebrated a liturgy at the Russian embassy in Beijing (photo 2), and also in the Church of the Protection of the Mother of God in Harbin (photo 3) and in the cathedral of Shanghai, dedicated to the icon of the Mother of God "Refuge of Sinners”, a building where celebrations are allowed only a few times a year.

The dialogue with the Chinese authorities has allowed some Chinese candidates to the priesthood to enter Russian seminaries, and two of them were recently ordained and work for their compatriots: Father Aleksandr Yui Shi in Harbin, and Father Pavel Sun Min in Inner Mongolia.

Other trips to China were then made by Metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeev), head of the Department for External Relations, who is also preparing a trip to Xinjiang, where two Russian churches still exist in Urumqi and Kuldzhe.

Throughout China today four "autonomous" Orthodox churches are officially open, but there is no recognition of the Church as an organization, on a national or local level. The patriarchate of Moscow is confident that they will be able to find an agreement in the not too distant future, also considering that several hundred thousand Russians live in China today.

The negotiations intend to unite the Orthodox of all ethnic groups under the autonomous Church, starting with the Russians and other Slavs. This year, despite the pandemic that has complicated all initiatives, the Russian Church has included assistance to China among the reasons for the celebrations for the 800th anniversary of the birth of Prince Alexander Nevsky.

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