02 December 2010

325 Year of Orthodoxy in China

A presentation of a beautifully illustrated book “Orthodox Christianity in China”, edited by the Russian Orthodox Church, took place a few days ago. This edition presents scientific research of the history of the Eastern branch of Christianity, known as Orthodoxy, in China, published both in Russian and in Chinese.

325 years ago, in 1685, a group of captive Russians arrived in China. One of them was Orthodox priest Mikhail Leontiev. This may seem to be an insignificant event, if not for the fact that from this date, the history of Orthodoxy in China started. In just a few years, Father Mikhail managed to stir an interest in Christianity in quite a few Chinese people. In 1713, he founded the Russian Spiritual Mission in China, which existed for more than two centuries. In fact, it was not only a church mission, but also a kind diplomatic mission of Russia to China.

The Chairman of the Department for public relations of the Moscow Patriarchate Metropolitan Hilary of Volokolamsk tells about the fate of this mission:

“This mission existed till the mid 20th century. In 1957, it was transformed into the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church. However, during the co-called “cultural revolution” of the Chinese Communist regime, this Church nearly ceased to exist. Most Orthodox temples were either destroyed or rebuilt for purposes that were far from religion. When, in the late 1970s, the Chinese authorities started a policy of reforms, several Orthodox temples in China were restored, including the famous Intercession Cathedral in Harbin, a city where there are many Russians. For all these years, the Russian Church tried to render spiritual guidance to our brethren in China, though sometimes it turned out to be rater hard for Russian priests to find common ground with the Chinese Communist authorities.”

Today, Orthodox Christianity is practically outcast in China. There are fewer than ten Orthodox temples and only two Orthodox priests in the whole of this big country. Orthodox believers often have to go to Roman Catholic or Protestant churches. The only temple in China that belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church (other Orthodox temples belong to the Chinese autonomous Orthodox Church) is on the private territory of the Russian embassy and is designated a museum of the Russian Spiritual Mission. Still, hierarchs of the Russian Church hope that the Chinese authorities will change their attitude to Orthodoxy.

“Chinese laws recognize only five religions as official,” Metropolitan Hilary says. “Orthodox Christianity is not among them, because the number of Orthodox believers in China is comparatively small. Still, you can meet Orthodox Christians in every part of the country, and they are not necessarily Russians – there are quite a few Chinese people who practice Orthodoxy as well. The Russian Church sees it as its duty to render spiritual guidance to them. Despite some difficulties in a dialogue between the Russian Church and the Chinese authorities in the past, there seems to be considerable progress in this now. I hope that this positive tendency will remain.”

Today, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church are holding talks with the Chinese authorities to allow Chinese students to study in Russian seminaries to become parish priests in China. Russia and China have signed two memorandums on cooperation in the religious sphere.
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