27 February 2011

Christianity in Russia

Christians in Russia constitute by some estimates the largest religion of the country (from 15% to 80% of total population by some sources). Meanwhile, approximately 83% of the country residents consider themselves Russian Orthodox Christians, although the vast majority are not regular churchgoers. By official information, there are 68 eparchies of Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate).

There are also from 500,000 to one million so-called Old Believers, who represent an older form of Russian Orthodox Christianity, and who separated from the Orthodox Church in the 17th century as a protest against Patriarch Nikon's church reforms.

According to the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, Protestants make up the second or third largest group of Christian believers, with approximately 3,500 organizations and more than 1 million followers. A large number of missionaries operating in the country are from Protestant denominations. In Russia today, about 280,000 associate with over 2200 congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reports over 20,000 adherents in 126 congregations.

The Roman Catholic Church estimates that there are from 600,000 to 1.5 million Catholics in the country, figures that also exceeded government estimates. There is one Roman Catholic Archdiocese (Mother of God at Moscow) with three suffragan dioceses (Saint Clement at Saratov, Saint Joseph at Irkutsk, Transfiguration at Novosibirsk) and Apostolic Prefecture of Yuzhno Sakhalinsk.

The new Russian "law on non-governmental organizations" taken effect in April 2007 requires non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Christian churches, to register with state agencies, list their funding sources and provide records of all meetings. Some Christians are afraid that this could have a chilling impact on their churches and ministries.

The Russian Orthodox Church is organized in a hierarchical structure. Every church building and its attendees constitute a parish (prikhod).

All parishes in a geographical region belong to an eparchy (eparkhiya—equivalent to a Western diocese). Eparchies are governed by bishops (episkope or archierey). There are around 130 Russian Orthodox eparchies worldwide.

Further, some eparchies are organized into exarchates, or autonomous churches. Currently these include the Orthodox Churches of Belarusian exarchate; the Latvian, the Moldovan, and the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate. The Chinese and Japanese Orthodox Churches were granted full autonomy by Moscow Patriarchate, but this autonomy is not universally recognized.

Smaller eparchies are usually governed by a single bishop. Larger eparchies, exarchates, and autonomous churches are governed by metropolitans and sometimes also have one or more bishops assigned to them.

The highest level of authority in the Church is represented by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, head of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Holy Synod is the governing body of the Church in the period between the Bishops’ Councils.

By information of Saint Tikhon's Orthodox University and other researchers, from one to several hundred thousands of Orthodox believers were repressed for their faith in the Soviet time.

According to figures released on February 2, 2010, the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) has 160 dioceses including 30,142 parishes served by 207 bishops, 28,434 priests and 3,625 deacons. There are 788 monasteries, including 386 for men and 402 for women.

In 1971 the Moscow Patriarchate revoked the anathemas placed on the Old Believers in the 17th century, but most Old Believer communities have not returned to Communion with other Orthodox Christians.

Estimates place the total number of Old Believers remaining today at from 500.000 to 1 millions, some living in extremely isolated communities in places to which they fled centuries ago to avoid persecution. An Old Believer parish in the United States has entered into communion with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

Old-Believer churches in Russia currently have started restoration of their property, although Old Believers (unlike the nearly-official mainstream Orthodoxy) face many difficulties in claiming their restitution rights for their churches. Moscow has churches for all the most important Old Believer branches: Rogozhskaya Zastava (Popovtsy of the Belokrinitskaya hierarchy official center), a cathedral for the Novozybkovskaya hierarchy in Zamoskvorech'ye and Preobrazhenskaya Zastava where Pomortsy and Fedoseevtsy coexist.

There are also communes of Byzantine Rite Catholic Church in Russia (in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Omsk, Nizhnevartovsk), which are in full communion with and subject to the authority of the Pope as defined by Eastern canon law. That tradition is closely connected with the ideas of philosopher and poet Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov.

The first attempts to translate books of the Bible into modern Russian language of that time took place in 16th and 17th centuries. But the mentioned works (by deacon of Posolsky Prikaz Avraamiy Firsov, pastor E.Gluk, archbishop Methodiy (Smirnov)) were lost during political turbulence and wars.

Mikhail Iakovlevich Glukharev, known as Archimandrite Makarios, was a Russian Orthodox missionary who translated most of the Old Testament between 1839 and 1847, while a contemporary associate named Gerasim Petrovich Pavsky translated Psalms. Makarios was unable to publish the translation during his lifetime, but a journal called Orthodox Review acquired and published the Makarios Bible in installments between 1860 and 1867, under the title An Experiment of Translation Into the Russian Language.

The aging magazines, more than a century old, were discovered in 1993 in the rare-books section of the Russian National Library, and permission was given for the work to be copied and prepared for publication. In January 1997, the Religious Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia "arranged for nearly 300,000 copies of this Bible to be printed in Italy for distribution throughout Russia and the many other countries where Russian is spoken. In addition to Makarios’ translation of most of the Hebrew Scriptures, this edition of the Bible contains Pavsky’s translation of Psalms as well as the Orthodox Church-authorized synodal translation of the Greek Scriptures."

The full-scale Bible translation into Russian language began in 1813 since the establishment of the Russian Bible Society. The full edition of the Bible with Old Testament and New Testament was published in 1876. This work, called also Russian Synodal Bible, is widely used by Protestant communities all over Russia and former USSR countries. Lately appeared several modern translations. The Russian Bible Society since its establishment in 1813 and up to 1826 distributed more than 500 thousand of Bible related books in 41 languages of Russia. Several times in 19-th and 20th centuries activities of the Society were stopped by reactionary policies of the Russian Government.

It was restored in 1990-1991 after a pause connected with the Soviet regime restrictions.

The opening ceremony of the Building of the Russian Bible Society in Moscow was visited by representatives of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches, who joined their efforts in Bible translation and distribution cause. The editions of Society are based on the universal doctrine of the early Christian church and include non-confessional comments. Over 1,000,000 Bible related books are printed per year by that institution. The Bible is also being translated into native languages and dialects of Russia's ethnic groups.

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26 February 2011

Christianity in Georgia

Today most of the population in Georgia practices Orthodox Christianity, primarily the Georgian Orthodox Church. Of these (82%), around 2% follow the Russian Orthodox Church. Around 5.9% of the population follow the Armenian Church, almost all of which are ethnic Armenians. Roman Catholics make up around 0.8% of the population and are mainly found in the south of Georgia and a small number in its capital, Tbilisi.

Christianity, first preached by the Apostles Simon and Andrew in the first century, became the state religion of Kartli (Iberia) in 319, making Georgia the second oldest Christian country after Armenia (301 AD). The final conversion of Georgia to Christianity in 319 is credited to St. Nino of Cappadocia. She was the only daughter of pious and noble parents, the Roman general Zabulon, a relative of the great martyr St. George, and Susanna, sister of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The Georgian Orthodox Church, originally part of the Church of Antioch, gained its autocephaly in the 5th century during the reign of Vakhtang Gorgasali, and the Bible was also translated into Georgian in the 5th century. Notably, the oldest example of Georgian writing is an asomtavruli inscription in a church in Bethlehem from AD 430. The Georgians' new faith, which replaced Greek pagan and Zoroastrian beliefs, was to place them permanently on the front line of conflict between the Islamic and Christian worlds. As was true elsewhere, the Christian church in Georgia was crucial to the development of a written language, and most of the earliest written works were religious texts. After Georgia was annexed by the Russian Empire, the Russian Orthodox Church took over the Georgian church in 1811. The colorful frescoes and wall paintings typical of Georgian cathedrals were whitewashed by the Russian occupiers.

The Georgian church regained its autonomy only when Russian rule ended in 1918. Neither the Georgian Menshevik government nor the Bolshevik regime that followed considered revitalization of the Georgian church an important goal, however. Soviet rule brought severe purges of the Georgian church hierarchy and constant repression of Orthodox worship. As elsewhere in the Soviet Union, many churches were destroyed or converted into secular buildings. This history of repression encouraged the incorporation of religious identity into the strong nationalist movement in twentieth-century Georgia and the quest of Georgians for religious expression outside the official, governmentcontrolled church. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, opposition leaders, especially Zviad Gamsakhurdia, criticized corruption in the church hierarchy. When Ilia II became the patriarch (catholicos) of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the late 1970s, he brought order and a new morality to church affairs, and Georgian Orthodoxy experienced a revival. In 1988 Moscow permitted the patriarch to begin consecrating and reopening closed churches, and a large-scale restoration process began.

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, known as the burial place of Christ's mantle, which was brought to Mtskheta after the crucifixion by Elias, a Georgian Jew from Iberia, is the first Georgian church. It is notable that Georgia falls under the patronage of the Virgin Mary—according to Saint Stefan, when the Apostles cast lots to determine in which country God desired each of them to preach the Gospel, the destiny of the mother of God was to preach in Iberia.

Jacques de Vitry and Sir John Maundeville stated that Georgians are called Georgian because they especially revere and venerate St. George, and that when they go on pilgrimage to the Lord's Sepulchre, they march into the Holy City with banners displayed, and without paying tribute to anyone.

The Georgian Orthodox Church (full title Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church, or in the Georgian language : საქართველოს სამოციქულო მართლმადიდებელი ავტოკეფალური ეკლესია Sakartvelos Samocikulo Martlmadidebeli Avt'ok'epaluri Ek'lesia) is one of the world's most ancient Christian Churches, and tradition traces its origins to the mission of Apostle Andrew in the 1st century. It is an autocephalous (self-headed) part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Georgian Orthodoxy has been a state religion in parts of Georgia since the 4th century, and is the majority religion in that country.

The Constitution of Georgia recognizes the special role of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the country's history but also stipulates the independence of the church from the state. The relations between the State and the Church are regulated by the Constitutional Agreement of 2002.

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25 February 2011


Tsukimi (月見) or Otsukimi, literally moon-viewing, refers to Japanese festivals honoring the autumn moon. The celebration of the full moon typically takes place on the 15th day of the eighth month of the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar; the waxing moon is celebrated on the 13th day of the ninth month. These days normally fall in September and October of the modern solar calendar.

The tradition dates to the Jomon period, and is now so popular in Japan that some people repeat the activities for several evenings following the appearance of the full moon during the eighth lunisolar month.

Tsukimi traditions include displaying decorations made from Japanese pampas grass (susuki) and eating rice dumplings called Tsukimi dango in order to celebrate the beauty of the moon. Seasonal produce are also displayed as offerings to the moon. Sweet potatoes are offered to the full moon, while beans or chestnuts are offered to the waxing moon the following month. The alternate names of the celebrations, Imomeigetsu (literally "potato harvest moon") and Mamemeigetsu ("bean harvest moon") or Kurimeigetsu ("chestnut harvest moon") are derived from these offerings

Tsukimi refers to the Japanese tradition of holding parties to view the harvest moon. The custom is thought to have originated with Japanese aristocrats during the Heian period, who would gather to recite poetry under the full moon of the eighth month of the lunisolar calendar, known as the "Mid-Autumn Moon." Since ancient times, Japanese people have described the eighth lunisolar month (corresponding to September on the contemporary Gregorian calendar) as the best time for looking at the moon, since the relative positions of the earth, sun, and moon cause the moon to appear especially bright. On the evening of the full moon, it is traditional to gather in a place where the moon can be seen clearly, decorate the scene with Japanese pampas grass, and to serve white rice dumplings (known as Tsukimi dango), taro, edamame, chestnuts and other seasonal foods, plus sake as offerings to the moon in order to pray for an abundant harvest. These dishes are known collectively as Tsukimi dishes (月見料理, tsukimi ryōri). Due to the ubiquity of sweet potato or taro among these dishes, the tradition is known as Imomeigetsu (芋名月 or "Potato harvest moon" in some parts of Japan.

From 862 until 1683, the Japanese calendar was arranged so that the full moon fell on the 13th day of each month. In 1684, however, the calendar was altered so that the new moon fell on the first day of each month, moving the full moon two days later, to the 15th day of the month. While some people in Edo (present-day Tokyo) shifted their Tsukimi activities to the 15th day of the month, others continued to observe the festival on the 13th day. Furthermore, there were various regional observances in some parts of Japan on the 17th day of the month, as well as Buddhist observances on the 23rd or the 26th day, all of which were used as pretexts for often late-night parties during the autumn throughout the Edo period. This custom was brought to a swift end during the Meiji period.

Festivals dedicated to the moon have a long history in Japan, dating as far back as the Jomon period. During the Heian period elements of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival were introduced to Japan. Members of the aristocratic class would hold moon-viewing events aboard boats in order to view the moon's reflection on the surface of the water. The writing of tanka poetry was also an element of such mid-autumn moon viewing festivities.

There are specific terms in Japanese to refer to occasions when the moon is not visible on the traditional mid-autumn evening, including Mugetsu (無月 literally: no-moon) and Ugetsu (雨月 rain-moon). Even when the moon is not visible, however, Tsukimi parties are held.

It is traditional to serve Tsukimi dango and seasonal produce offerings during Tsukimi, as described above. In addition, there are several other dishes associated with Tsukimi.

Boiled soba or udon noodles topped with nori and raw egg, then covered with broth are known as Tsukimi soba or Tsukimi udon. In Kitakyushu an egg served atop yaki udon is known as Tenmado, another name for Tsukimi in the local dialect.

At some fast food restaurants in Japan a special Fall Menu is offered during September and October featuring fried egg sandwiches known as Tsukimi burgers.

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24 February 2011

Sakura and Ume Hanami Festivals

Hanami (花見, litera "flower viewing") is the Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the beauty of flowers, "flower" in this case almost always meaning sakura/cherry blossoms or ume/plum blossoms. From the end of March to early May, sakura bloom all over Japan. The blossom forecast (桜前線, sakurazensen, literally cherry blossom front) is announced each year by the weather bureau, and is watched carefully by those planning hanami as the blossoms only last a week or two. In modern-day Japan, hanami mostly consists of having an outdoor party beneath the sakura during daytime or at night. Hanami at night is called yozakura (夜桜, literally night sakura). In many places such as Ueno Park temporary paper lanterns are hung for the purpose of yozakura.

A more ancient form of hanami also exists in Japan, which is enjoying the plum blossoms (梅 ume) instead. This kind of hanami is popular among older people, because they are more calm than the sakura parties, which usually involve younger people and can sometimes be very crowded and noisy.

The practice of hanami is many centuries old. The custom is said to have started during the Nara Period (710–794) when it was ume blossoms that people admired in the beginning. But by the Heian Period (794–1185), sakura came to attract more attention and hanami was synonymous with sakura. From then on, in tanka and haiku, "flowers" meant "sakura."

Hanami was first used as a term analogous to cherry blossom viewing in the Heian era novel Tale of Genji. Whilst a wisteria viewing party was also described, from this point on the terms "hanami" and "flower party" were only used to describe cherry blossom viewing.

Sakura originally was used to divine that year's harvest as well as announce the rice-planting season. People believed in kami inside the trees and made offerings. Afterwards, they partook of the offering with sake.

Emperor Saga of the Heian Period adopted this practice, and held flower-viewing parties with sake and feasts underneath the blossoming boughs of sakura trees in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. Poems would be written praising the delicate flowers, which were seen as a metaphor for life itself, luminous and beautiful yet fleeting and ephemeral. This was said to be the origin of hanami in Japan.

The custom was originally limited to the elite of the Imperial Court, but soon spread to samurai society and, by the Edo period, to the common people as well. Tokugawa Yoshimune planted areas of cherry blossom trees to encourage this. Under the sakura trees, people had lunch and drank sake in cheerful feasts.

Today, the Japanese people continue the tradition of hanami, gathering in great numbers wherever the flowering trees are found. Thousands of people fill the parks to hold feasts under the flowering trees, and sometimes these parties go on until late at night. In more than half of Japan, the cherry blossoming period coincides with the beginning of the school and fiscal years, and so welcoming parties are often opened with hanami. The Japanese people continue the tradition of hanami by taking part in the processional walks through the parks. This is a form of retreat for contemplating and renewing their spirits.

The teasing proverb dumplings rather than flowers (花より団子, hana yori dango) hints at the real priorities for most cherry blossom viewers, meaning that people are more interested in the food and drinks accompanying a hanami party than actually viewing the flowers themselves. (A punning variation, Boys Over Flowers (花より男子, Hana Yori Dango), is the title of a manga and anime series.)

Dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees! is a popular saying about hanami, after the opening sentence of the 1925 short story "Under the Cherry Trees" by Motojirō Kajii.

Emperor Saga (嵯峨天皇 Saga-tennō) (786-842) of the Heian Period adopted this custom, and celebrated parties to view the flowers with sake and feasts under the blossoming branches of sakura trees in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. This was said to be the origin of hanami in Japan. Poems were written praising the delicate flowers, which were seen as a metaphor for life itself; beautiful, but lasting for a very short time. This "temporary" view of life is very popular in Japanese culture and is usually considered as an admirable form of existence; for example, in the samurai's principle of life ending when it's still beautiful and strong, instead of slowly getting old and weak. The Heian era poets used to write poems about how much easier things would be in spring without the sakura blossoms, because their existence reminded us that life is very short.

Hanami was used as a term that meant "cherry blossom viewing" for the first time in the Heian era novel Tale of Genji (chapter 8, 花宴 Hana no En, "Under the Cherry Blossoms"). From then on, in tanka (短歌) and in haiku (俳句) poetry, "flowers" meant "sakura", and the terms "hanami" and "flower party" were only used to mean sakura blossom viewing. At the beginning, the custom was followed only by the Imperial Court, but the samurai nobility also began celebrating it during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568–1600). In those years, Toyotomi Hideyoshi gave great hanami parties in Yoshino and Daigo, and the festivity became very popular through all the Japanese society. Shortly after that, farmers began their own custom of climbing nearby mountains in the springtime and having lunch under the blooming cherry trees. This practice, called then as the "spring mountain trip", combined itself with that of the nobles' to form the urban culture of hanami. By the Edo Period (1600–1867), all the common people took part in the celebrations, in part because Tokugawa Yoshimune planted areas of cherry blossom trees to encourage this. Under the sakura trees, people had lunch and drank sake in cheerful feasts.

The Japanese people continue the tradition of hanami, gathering in great numbers wherever the flowering trees are found. Thousands of people fill the parks to hold feasts under the flowering trees, and sometimes these parties go on until late at night. In more than half of Japan, the cherry blossoming days come at the same time of the beginning of school and work after vacation, and so welcoming parties are often opened with hanami. Usually, people go to the parks to keep the best places to celebrate hanami with friends, family, and company broken coworkers many hours or even days before. In cities like Tokyo, it's also common to have celebrations under the sakura at night. Hanami at night is called yozakura (夜桜, literally "night sakura"). In many places such as Ueno Park, temporary paper lanterns are hung to have yozakura.

The blossom forecast (桜前線 sakurazensen, literally "cherry blossom front") is announced each year by the Japan Meteorological Agency, and is watched with attention by those who plan to celebrate hanami because the blossoms last for very little time, usually no more than two weeks. The first cherry blossoms happen in the subtropical southern islands of Okinawa, while on the northern island of Hokkaido, they bloom much later. In most large cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, the cherry blossom season normally takes place around the end of March and the beginning of April. The television and newspapers closely follow this "cherry blossom front", as it slowly moves from South to North.

The hanami celebrations usually involve eating and drinking, and playing and listening music. Some special dishes are prepared and eaten at the occasion, like dango and bento, and it's common for sake to be drunk as part of the festivity. The proverb "dumplings rather than flowers" (花より団子 hana yori dango) makes fun of people who prefer to eat and drink instead of admiring the blossoms. "Dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees!" (桜の樹の下には屍体が埋まっている! Sakura no ki no shita ni wa shitai ga umatte iru!) is a popular saying about hanami, after the first line of the 1925 short story "Under the Cherry Trees" by Motojirō Kajii.

Hanami festivities have also become popular outside of Japan in the last years, and is also celebrated today at other countries. Smaller hanami celebrations in Taiwan, Korea, Philippines and China also take place.

In the United States, hanami has also become very popular. In 1912, Japan gave 3,000 sakura trees as a gift to the United States to celebrate the nations' friendship. These trees were planted in Washington, D.C., and another 3,800 gifted trees were also taken there in 1956. These sakura trees continue to be a popular tourist attraction, and every year, the "National Cherry Blossom Festival" takes place when they bloom in early spring.

In Macon, Georgia, another cherry blossom festival called the "International Cherry Blossom Festival" is celebrated every spring. Macon is known as the "Cherry Blossom Capital of the World", because 300,000 sakura trees grow there.

In Brooklyn, New York, the "Annual Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival" takes place in May, at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This festivity has been celebrated since 1981, and is one of the Garden's most famous attractions. Similar celebrations are also done in Philadelphia and other places through the United States.

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23 February 2011

At lecture, Greek Orthodox archbishop says psalms applicable to many traditions

The archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America last night spoke to a filled Goddard Chapel about the universality of messages found in the Book of Psalms.
The presentation by Archbishop Demetrios, attended by approximately 80 people, was entitled "The Book of Psalms: The Ecumenical and Universal Prayer." It was part of the Goddard Chapel Forum on Religion in America, a lecture series organized and sponsored by the Tufts Chaplaincy.

"In the English-speaking world, the psalms have monumental literary presence," Demetrios said. "There is perhaps no book of the Bible more beloved and more used than the psalms."

The psalms are applicable to all monotheistic religious traditions, according to Demetrios.

"These are not Jewish prayers or Christian prayers or Muslim prayers; they are human prayers," he said. "We pray the very same prayers through the Book of Psalms," he said.

University Chaplain David O'Leary agreed that the psalms extend to multiple faiths.

"All three monotheistic traditions at least acknowledge the Book of Psalms as worthy of meditation and prayer," O'Leary told the Daily after the lecture.

Demetrios was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1928 and attended the University of Athens School of Theology, the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the University of Athens. He is primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, exarch of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and chairman of the Holy Eparchial Synod of Bishops.

He has held professorships at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass. and at Harvard Divinity School.

The psalms are unique in their direct language, Demetrios said.

"They approach the divine without pretense. There is, in the Psalms, an amazing directness," he said, adding that the psalms provide religious readers the opportunity to connect with God.

"Reading prayer from a psalm is concurrently an act of speaking to God and listening to God," he said. "The psalms are God's voice, God's revelation."

Senior Veronica Azmy, president of the Tufts Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF), was pleased with Demetrios' choice of the book for his lecture.

"It's a beautiful piece of literature," Azmy said.

O'Leary said that the psalms address nearly every human emotion.

"The Book of Psalms go from high emotions of joy … to the middle psalms of laments and anger and almost depression. So you have a whole range of emotions with the Book of Psalms," O'Leary said.

Demetrios' teachings follow the apostolic tradition, which emphasizes the teachings as passed down by Christ's apostles, according to junior Stephanie Phoutrides, a co-founder and former president of OCF.

She was pleased that the OCF community, and the Tufts community at large, was able to hear from a figure like the archbishop.

"I think it's a big deal, especially because there's not a huge Orthodox presence at Tufts," Phoutrides said.

Being able to hear Demetrios speak in person, Azmy agreed, presented a rare opportunity.

"He was appointed in the same way that the first church fathers were. He is a church father of our time, so he's very important to us," Azmy said.

Azmy emphasized the importance of opportunities for students of religion to interact with figures like the archbishop.

"When these holy men come in, it's very important to ask them spiritual things and take advantage of all their biblical knowledge, all their wisdom," she said.

"These holy men, they have had probably hundreds of thousands of people over their lifetime ask them for advice," Azmy said. "They've seen things over and over again."

Demetrios' religious background and understanding, like that of his colleagues, is invaluable, Azmy said.

"They have a lot of knowledge and knowledge not only comes from their experience, but also from their very intricate study of the Bible and the holy books and spiritual reading," she said.

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22 February 2011

Christianity in VietNam

Christianity was first introduced to Vietnam in 16th century and established a solid position in Vietnamese society since the 19th century. Roman Catholics and Protestants today constitute 7% and 1% of the country population accordingly; the newest census of Government shows that is 8% (7% Catholic and 1% Protestant). Christian communes still remain under control of state authorities. Foreign missionaries legally are not allowed to proselytize or perform religious activities without government approval. Undeclared missionaries from several countries are active in Vietnam.

Roman Catholicism first entered Vietnam through Catholic missionaries in 16th century and strengthened its influence when Vietnam was a French colony. France encouraged Catholicism.

The most active introducers of Western enlightenment were the Jesuits, who were, at that time, in the prime of their exploratory efforts. The Franciscans, Dominicans, and others, although prominent, never reached the influence of the Jesuits who were determined to plant the spiritual and cultural power of Roman Catholic Church in Southeast Asia. Having arrived there about 1627, they developed their activities in many fields. Their activities were helped by the printing of the first Bible in 1651, and the growing influence of several individuals, who were welcomed in certain powerful circles. Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes created in 17th century a written system of Vietnamese language largely using the Roman alphabet - it is used today and now called Quốc Ngữ (national language).

Catholicism came to widespread prominence when the French missionary priest and Bishop of Adran Pigneau de Behaine played a key role towards the end of the 18th century. He had come to southern Vietnam to proselytise. Pigneau then became the confidant of Nguyễn Ánh the last of the Nguyễn Lords, then engaged in civil war. Pigneau hoped that by helping in a Nguyễn Ánh victory, he would gain concessions for the Catholic Church in Vietnam.

Pigneau and other missionaries bought military supplies and enlisted European soldiers for Nguyễn Ánh and they took part in military operations.

Nguyen conquered Vietnam and became Emperor Gia Long. He tolerated the Catholic faith and permitted unimpeded missionary activities out of respect to his benefactors. The missionary activity was dominated by the Spanish in Tonkin and French in the central and southern regions. At the time of his death, there were six European bishops in Vietnam. The population of Christians was estimated at 300,000 in Tonkin and 60,000 in Cochinchina.

The peaceful coexistence of Catholicism alongside the classical Confucian system of Vietnam was not to last. Gia Long appointed Minh Mạng his successor for his deeply conservative Confucianism; his first son's lineage had converted to Catholicism and abandoned their Confucian heritage.

A power struggle then developed between Minh Mạng and pro-Catholic, pro-Western officials who wanted to maintain the power they had been given by Gia Long. Eventually, 2,000 Vietnamese Catholic troops fought under the command of Father Nguyễn Văn Tâm in an attempt to depose Minh Mạng and install a Catholic emperor.

The revolt was put down, and restrictions were placed on Catholicism. Persistent rebellions occurred throughout the Nguyễn Dynasty, many led by Catholic priests intent on installing a Christian monarch. During the French colonial campaign against Vietnam from 1858 to 1883, many Catholics joined with the French in helping to establish colonialism by fighting against the Vietnamese government. Once colonial rule was established the Catholics were rewarded with preferential treatment in government posts, education, and the church was given vast tracts of royal land that had been seized.

After the end of the French rule and Vietnam division in mid-1950s, Catholicism declined in the North, where the communists regarded it as a reactionary force opposed to national liberation and social progress. In the South, by contrast, Catholicism was expanded under the presidency of Ngo Dinh Diem, who promoted it as an important bulwark against North Vietnam. Diem, whose brother was Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc gave extra rights to the Catholic Church, dedicated the nation to the Virgin Mary and preferentially promoted Catholic military officers and public servants while restricting Buddhism and allowing Catholic paramilitaries to demolish temples and pagodas. In 1955 approximately 600,000 Catholics remained in the North after an estimated 650,000 had fled to the South in Operation Passage to Freedom.

In 1975 the Communist authorities, which united the country by military force and after the US troops withdrawal, claimed that the religious activities of Roman Catholics were stabilized and that there was no religious persecution. Meanwhile, the Government acted to isolate and to neutralize hard-core opposition within local Catholics to party policy and to persuade less strongly opposed factions to join a party-controlled "renovation and reconciliation" movement. A significant number of Vietnamese Roman Catholics, however, remained opposed to communist authority.

In 1988 all Vietnamese Catholics, who died for their faith from 1533 to present time, were canonized by Pope John Paul II as Vietnamese Martyrs.

Protestantism was introduced in 1911 at Da Nang by the Canadian missionary Robert A. Jaffray. As part of the Christian Missionary Alliance, over 100 missionaries were sent to Vietnam, assisting the faith's growth in the country.

By 1967 information, Protestant communities were represented mainly within South Vietnam. Those communities included the French Reformed Church, Anglican–Episcopalian, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Baptists, Church of Christ, Worldwide Evangelization Crusade, and Seventh-day Adventists. Other Protestant associations were also represented in some social services and welfare agencies.
Protestant communes in the North decreased in membership to about 1,200 by the end of the Vietnam War. Several Protestant church properties were confiscated during the communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975.

Protestants in the early 1980s, mostly located in the Montagnard communities in southern Vietnam's central highlands.

By May, 2006, over 300 Montagnard people remained in Vietnamese prisons for their faith. A young Hroi (ethnic minority) man who refused to reject his Christian faith reportedly died from injuries received under official interrogation in April 2007. By the 2008 estimates of Release International, many Christians from Vietnam's tribal highlands are still regarded as enemies and targeted as "agents of America". They are reportedly beaten, tortured and starved behind bars, despite the official claims and guarantees for freedom of religion.

The modern Vietnamese alphabet was created in the 17th century by Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes, leading to the first printing of the Bible in Vietnamese by the Jesuits in 1651. The continued publication of Bibles in the indigenous language greatly aided in the Society of Jesus in evangelization. Protestant missionaries brought other translations in the 19th century.

Other Bible translations were made by Protestants in 1926 and 1991.

The organized work of United Bible Societies in Vietnam began in 1890. In 1966 the Vietnamese Bible Society was established. The Bible societies distributed 53,170 Bible examples and 120,170 New Testament examples in Vietnamese within the country in 2005.

Orthodoxy in Vietnam is presented by a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church in Vung Tau, where there are many Russian-speaking employees of the Russian-Vietnamese joint venture "Vietsovpetro".

The parish is named after Our Lady of Kazan icon and was opened in 2002 with the blessing of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been given in Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra.

Chairman of Russian Orthodox Church's Department for External Church Relations Metropolitan Kirill (since 2009 Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus) was the first Russian Orthodox hierarch, who visited Vietnam in November 2001. Headed by Kirill delegation had meetings with Russian speaking community and Vietnamese officials, held church services in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Vung Tau (about 600 people were present).

Since that time representatives of the foreign relations department of the Russian Orthodox Church from time to time come to Vung Tau to conduct the Orthodox divine service.

In 2007, the mission of the Russian Orthodox Church organized Easter divine services in Vung Tau, General Consulate of Russia in Ho Chi Minh City and the Russian Center of science and culture in Hanoi.

In April, 2010, the delegation of the foreign relations department of the Russian Orthodox Church organized and conducted regular Easter services in Our Lady of Kazan icon parish in Vungtau.

Vietnam is also mentioned as territory under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Hong Kong & Southeast Asia Nikitas (Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople), though there is no information on its organized activities there.

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