01 March 2011

Christian Orthodoxy in Asia

From 18 to 23 December  there were celebrations dedicated to the anniversary of the Orthodox Church in Thailand, which was headed by Archbishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk. Rectors of many parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate in Asia came for this holiday: from Mongolia, China, Singapore and Indonesia. They were all very glad to have this opportunity to congregate together, share experiences, discuss pressing issues, because their parishes are living in similar conditions, and have essentially the same problems and challenges. Such a meeting has been so useful that there were suggestions that Asian parishes would sometime in the future form, as a minimum a separate deanery, to be able to coordinate joint efforts to solve all problems facing them.

Addressing the gathering, Archbishop Hilarion, said: "Your service is of particular significance for our Church. This is truly a missionary and selfless ministry, which takes place in difficult conditions - not only climatic, but also psychological and spiritual. You live in conditions as closely resembling those in which the apostles lived and served. This imposes a special responsibility on you, but at the same time requires special internal strength. Not every priest is able to endure those conditions in which you find yourself?

I managed to talk with the participants of the meeting. Each of the priests serving in these Asian parishes, I asked the same four questions. The responses provide a fairly good impression of the situation of the Russian Orthodox Church in Asia, particularly the Orthodox life and pastoral ministry in this region, as well as the prospects of the mission.
– Please tell us about your parish.

Archimandrite Oleg (Cherepanin), representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Thailand: the Orthodox community in Thailand for ten years. Our first parish - in the name of Saint Nicholas - was opened in Bangkok in December 1999. But since there are still a number of places where an appreciable amount of Orthodox Christians are living and these places are far from the capital, over time, the question arose about the opening of other parishes. After Bangkok, where the first temple was built, there came the parish in the city of Pattaya. This second temple - in the name of All Saints - just now consecrated by His Eminence Archbishop Hilarion. Also there is the Holy Trinity parish on the island of Phuket, where the construction of the temple has only just begun, and the Ascension Parish on the island of Samui, where so far they only purchased land for the future church. In addition, there is still a place acquired to build the first Orthodox cemetery because the deceased are cremated in Thailand, but for Orthodox Christians living here on an ongoing basis, of course, it is important to be able to be buried in a Christian way. Here will be built a small Church of the Dormition and, God willing, maybe, there will be a monastery and educational center. As you can see, there are many parishes, and it became already difficult to handle them by myself, so for me, and for our entire community has been a great joy the ordination of a second priest - Father Daniel Vanna, that took place in the summer. He was from Thailand and was the first local resident who converted to Orthodoxy after the founding of the parish. Now there are already several dozens of Orthodox from Thailand, but the bulk of the congregation are still Russian-speaking parishioners. Our congregation has Romanians, Greeks, Serbs, and Bulgarians. There is an Englishman, a Frenchman. We try to ensure that no one feels like a stranger. Therefore prayers in the temple are in Church Slavonic, and Romanian, and Greek, and English, and more and more frequently - in Thai.

Archpriest Dionisy Pozdnyaev, rector of the parish of the Apostles SS. Peter and Paul in Hong Kong (China): In our parish we have the following background. From 1933 to 1970 in Hong Kong has already been the parish of the Russian Church Abroad, who was led until his death, by Father Dimitry Ouspensky. After his death the parishioners of the old church of the apostles Peter and Paul dispersed in different directions. Since at that time the parish was not a missionary parish, there was no Chinese left, which I consider a great disadvantage and an omission. Our community was established in 2003, and then began regular services, and last year the community has acquired canonical status of a parish. There are few dozen of parishioners, about half are Russian-speaking, and fifteen per cent - Chinese, the others — American, French, and German converts to Orthodoxy. In the service we use mainly Church Slavonic, English, and Chinese.

Priest Alexis Trubach, rector of Holy Trinity parish in Ulan Bator (Mongolia): Our parish was founded in the XIX century, with Russia's consulate. In 1872 the church was consecrated, and unfortunately, was closed in 1921, after the horrible killing of the last abbot by white Baron Ungern von Sternberg. Since 1927 the temple was used for various household needs. Since 1996, priests started coming in Ulan Bator, and in 1998 the parish was given the land and two-storey building of the former Russia's trade mission in Mongolia for their use, which was before vacant. This, incidentally, is not so far from the old temple, and it survived, there is now an internet cafe, but if you go inside, it is easy to recognize the features of the old temple. Initially, we converted part of the upper floors given to us in building into the church, where I started the ministry, but later we managed to build a separate large Orthodox church, the consecration of which took place in 2009. And this is the first time in the history of Mongolia, as even the pre-revolutionary church was connected with the building of the consulate, and the last abbot, Father Theodore Permyakov, wrote that the whole community wanted and collected funds for the construction of a separate church. We can say we carried out the aspirations of so many Orthodox Christians, who lived in Mongolia. We have now about 60 people attending Sunday worship and during the Nativity and Pascha we have about 300. The parish mainly consists of Russian, but there are Orthodox Mongols, and Serbs, Bulgarians, and Americans. Of course, in the future basis for the parish should be local residents - the Mongols and the Russian, who were born here. We try to create a community, which could be attended by all. Therefore, among the main activities are missionary. We have translated a large part of the service into the Mongolian language, and some services are conducted in it; sermon is delivered in two languages. 25 Mongols have already converted to the Orthodoxy, many of whom actively attend church and participate in parish life. The choir consists entirely of local residents. Also, we are publishing: print newspapers, brochures, we are translating, and also conducting a Sunday school for children and adults.

Priest Alexander Dondenko, cleric from parish of Dormition of Mother of God in Singapore: The parish in Singapore was established two years ago with blessing of the Holy Patriarch Alexis by Right Reverend Sergius (Chashin), at present bishop of Solnechnogorsk. At present the parish prays in the house church, which is situated in the hall of private house. On Sunday we have around 60 to 80 people. At present the main part of our parishioners are Russian speaking but we also have Japanese, Georgian, American, Ukrainians, White Russians — it is a very colorful parish. We are glad, that there are more and more people, the parish is slowly growing. We have a Sunday school, we take care of sick people, because so many children, who are suffering from cancer, are coming to Singapore, and a number of them are in very difficult condition. We are slowly moving to our dream of construction of the church and also are working towards other goals.

Hieromonk Ioasaph (Tandibilang), the head of the parish of St. Thomas in Jakarta (Indonesia): Now in Indonesia, I am serving three parishes - in Jakarta, Surabaya and on island of Bali, but the latter is only beginning to exist, and the first two are quite serious. Almost all of our parishioners are Indonesian, there are few Russian. The fact is that we have no separate church, and we pray in the home church. Indonesia is not very welcoming to this approach, to attend religious gatherings in the home is considered a sign of sectarianism, so many Russians are afraid to attend the house church, but when we are able to build a temple, I believe that they would attend it, like here in Bangkok. When I returned from Belgorod seminary to Indonesia, I assumed that I would serve for the Russian, but we soon learned that it is very important, if the parish have Indonesians. Because many of the Russian did not live there permanently, and when they return home, the church is deprived of the parishioners. It is therefore important that the bulk of the parishioners consisted of locals, because they will be permanent. History teaches us this also. Earlier in Jakarta there already was the church of Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, but not for long, because when the adverse political conditions begun, the Russian parishioners dispersed to other countries and the parish closed. Thank God, now every Sunday many Indonesians come to service.

– What are the particulars of spiritual life of Orthodox Christians in Asia, and especially the pastoral ministry in a foreign and foreign-language environment?

Archimandrite Oleg (Cherepanin) (Thailand): As you know, in Thailand from 85 to 95% (according to different estimates) of the population - are Buddhists, from 3 to 5% - Muslims. There are only about 0, 6% of Christians of all denominations in the country of the total number of those living here. This certainly leaves its imprint on the life of our congregation, and pastoral activities. First of all arises, the question of religious identity; note, not national, but certainly religious. We are the Orthodox Church. In communities across the country are not only Russians but also Ukrainians, Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, French, Thais. Orthodox Church is above nationalities. In theory, it is understood by all, but by practice, unfortunately, shows the opposite. The division among Christians in general is a tragedy, a violation of the divine commandment about unity. Separation in the Orthodox environment can hardly be called otherwise than a crime against Orthodoxy. Good that our parishioners understand it. It is not by accident that Orthodox communities in Thailand, while in the canonical jurisdiction of the Holy Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, are united in the Orthodox Church in Thailand, where every Orthodox Christian residing in the territory of the kingdom, feels at home. The service is conducted in Slavonic, Romanian, and Thai — in any required language. Today it is generally recognized: the beginning and development of Orthodoxy in Thailand - is a merit of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Archpriest Dionisy Pozdnyaev (Hong Kong, China): A special feature is a large, unlike in Europe, closeness to the Christians of other denominations, because we are finding ourselves in pagan environment. For the Chinese are incomprehensible dogmatic disputes between Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, because they are far from knowledge of the very foundations of Christianity. Disputes between Catholics and Protestants have always hindered evangelizing in China. This can be attributed in a lesser degree to the Orthodoxy because Orthodox evangelization was not so intense. Any of our conflicts and disputes has a very negative impact on the attitude to Christianity as such, including Orthodoxy. Therefore, the preaching of Orthodoxy in Asian countries needs to be built on the positive apologetics, not so much on exposure, but rather on the absence in other faiths, but availability in Orthodoxy. Often the Chinese are converting from Catholicism and Protestantism to Orthodoxy because they did not find sufficient depth in those denominations, but they still see their past stay in them as a first step towards Christ. And this must be taken into account. With regard to the specific characteristics of Hong Kong ... The city is very focused on business. People are busy, they have very little time, the rhythm of life is quite hard, and because to be a Christian according to Orthodox canonical laws it requires more sacrifice from people - this refers, above all to regular attendance at religious services. For local population Christians the additional difficulty is the lack of worship in their native language, so our parish needs a priest - a native speaker. In Hong Kong there is (Guangdonghua) Cantonese dialect of Chinese, and there must be a translation of worship to it. Such work is being done, but we are lacking people who would have enough time, skills and knowledge to do this work.

Priest Alexy Trubach (Mongolia): Of course, the main problem is how the newly converted Christians can be Orthodox, while remaining members of the society in which they grew up and still are part of. The peculiarity of Mongolia - a very strong family and kinship ties, and here it is very important to have recognition of relatives. Therefore the main challenge for us — is not so much the conversion of individuals, but entire families. And now we have two families - one already baptized, the other going thru— catechization and is about to be worthy of baptism. Need education work not only among those who already want to convert, but also among their relatives, although sometimes it is difficult to do. This imposes specific nature on pastoral activities, as well as the need to learn the local language and local culture. A priest who serves in such a country has to communicate a lot with local people, and not only with the Orthodox. Engage in social work, contact with the media, and do much more in order to create good information field around the parish. This helps the converts not to feel alienated in the surrounding society.

Priest Alexander Dondenko (Singapore): Of course, the surrounding area could either make us closer to God, or take us away from God. We must pay tribute: in Singapore there is some freedom of choice, no one climbs into your head and does not impose his choice - it is prohibited by law. Therefore, directly they do not influence the people, but the movement of society itself to the material ideals, does not contribute to bring people closer to God. It is a hard fact that in this busy city everyone has to work, and people find it very difficult to physically attend church often. Of course, the Lord sends comfort and gives grace for even rare visits, people feel it, and the community is gradually growing stronger.

– Share your impressions about acquaintance with the Orthodox community in Thailand.

Archpriest Dionisy Pozdnyaev (Hong Kong): On the whole a very positive impression. Of course, there is now a very difficult period of work, when one is laying the foundation and creating an environment for future missionary service. Father Oleg was here a long time the only priest, and the enormous strength he had to give to the work with compatriots, administrative and economic matters, the establishment of churches and settlement. Much has been done, and this in the future will become a stepping stone to missionary work. It is essential that a Thai priest is present, it is important that students from Thailand and Laos are now studying in religious schools in Russia, but this is only the beginning. Translations are especially needed. Here something is translated into the Thai language, but more needs to be - the liturgical and catechetical texts, which should be available to people in the Thai language. And there remains only to wish success, in which I, frankly believe, because so far much has been done here, even surpassing human strength.

Priest Alexis Trubach (Mongolia): Of course, a very good impression. Indeed, here one feels a mystical connection, which exists in the Universal Orthodox Church. One wonders how often ideas and their execution coincide and, in many ways I felt a similarity of our Mongolian community with Thai Orthodox community. Of course, the Thai community is more successful in the preaching of Orthodoxy, and there already exists a priest from the local community, and we are only preparing two local boys to enter the seminary - God willing, this will happen next year. Moreover, the interesting coincidence of names: here the first Thai priest in baptism was given the name of Daniel, and we have an Altar server, which we hope to send to the seminary, so that he will became the first Mongolian priest, was also baptized with the name of Daniel. Apparently, this is no accident, for God has no accidents. And we'll follow in the footsteps of Thai parish, and hopefully, will bring this Orthodox Mongol to ordination and further service in the parish.

Priest Alexander Dondenko (Singapore): I became acquainted with the Orthodox parish in Thailand two years ago and was very glad to see how colorful and diverse the congregation is here, and how its members co-exist harmoniously, not only Russian but also French, and Thai. It is very difficult - the very moment of conversion of Thais to the Orthodox faith. It is God's mystery, how the Lord turns their hearts to Him. So it is a very difficult missionary work, which is being done here by Father Oleg, and now with Father Daniel, with God's help. It is so joyful to see such a witness, a flag of the Church of God on Thai soil.

Hieromonk Ioasaph (Tandibilang) (Indonesia): I am very happy being here, because in the Orthodox community in Bangkok, I feel like in Russia. Much is the same as in Russia. Of course, where the Russian live, they do not have to change anything, but keep the good Orthodox way of life, because Thai people will look at them and take an example. I like that in Bangkok a lot of Russian attend services, so I hope later on, if we will have in Jakarta our own temple, we will have also more Russian parishioners, like here.

– What is the future of Orthodoxy in Asia?

Archimandrite Oleg (Cherepanin) (Thailand): We have to work regardless of the prospects. The future is in God's hands. We can only pray God to grow the fruits, which we now are planting. We have no other means to win the hearts of people adhering to different faiths, but the love, the love that manifested itself in the fullness of God, devoting himself to the Passion for the salvation of mankind. And for God nothing is impossible.

Archpriest Dionisy Pozdnyaev (Hong Kong): I think there is every chance that the Orthodox Church will develop, but it is necessary to exert sufficient effort on the part of the Orthodox Church.

Priest Alexis Trubach (Mongolia): I think, of course, there are prospects, and large prospects. As in Mongolia, and Thailand there are many opportunities not used, but with time they should be used. The main issues that stand on that road are the same as were in the XIX century - the problem of funding the mission and the problem of getting staff missionaries from Russia. These problems are open and required solutions. As for the conversion of Asians to Orthodoxy ... we have before our eyes a magnificent example of Indonesia. Here, in Bangkok, I met with Father Ioasaph, who created a magnificent parish in a rather complicated non-Christian environment, he has already more than fifty members, and he is going to continue to develop it. And I think our meeting in Bangkok was important precisely for this opportunity to learn the missionary experience of each other. Indonesian congregations are encouraging optimism in the future development of Orthodoxy in Asia. Their experience is valuable to all of us. I think maybe we're not going to convert people as fast, as Protestants, but this process, which is already in progress will continue.

Hieromonk Ioasaph (Tandibilang) (Indonesia): I find it difficult to talk about the whole of Asia, but I think that Orthodoxy — is a mercy for Indonesia. I see that in other Christian denominations there is not very much change in a person's life for God's sake. But when people become Orthodox, they are changing for the better, and it's obvious to all. Therefore, it is difficult not to say that the Orthodox — are different people, because we all look not so much on who is saying what, but rather on who leads a different life. And people say: why adopt a religion, if it does not change a person's life? And thank God that the Orthodox Church gives person the power to change, and this is God's blessing for Indonesia.

Priest Alexander Dondenko (Singapore): I believe that there are enormous opportunities for development, but much depends on people - both on the pastor, and on the parishioners. As soon as we pray, as soon as we prepare our hearts to accept God's grace, then God will grant it. Of course, despite our unworthiness, the Lord gives us much. We have to approach this task which was entrusted to us very responsibly, and Orthodox Christians must realize that they are missionaries. Not only is the priest a missionary, but every Orthodox Christian, and if he is aware of this and will live according to the commandments and become a vessel of God's grace, this will become the best sermon for our foreign-language neighbors, who do not understand the language and do not know the services are judging our faith, by observing our lives. If they see from our actions that God exists, then it will help them to convert to Orthodoxy. Now the natives are converting one by one, but as soon as we can find the way to their hearts, then they can convert en masse, as we know from Japan's example, where St. Nicholas worked. But, of course, for this a heroic deed is needed.

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