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January 5, 2010

Orthodoxy in China

Fr Denis Pozdnyaev and an unnamed Chinese official are here to help with orthodox religious issues.

An Orthodox View

Global Times
January 04 2010

With a flowing brown beard and black robes, the Orthodox churchman cuts a curious shape striding past strip-lit convenience stores and real estate sales rooms in noisy Dongzhimen.

It makes sense, however, that Father Denis Pozdnyaev would be walking this way, given that the Russian embassy is around the corner. On the grounds of the sprawling diplomatic compound – Beijing's largest – Pozdnyaev preaches to his flock in the newly reappointed and re-consecrated Church of the Repose of Holy Virgin.

Set amid the spacious greenery of the embassy, the church, which dates back more than a century, has recently been restored to its former glory. Cleaned and repainted, the church was being used as a garage during much of the Soviet period. Given its compact size and onion dome, its grounds resemble a village church in Crimea or Volgograd. But this is Beijing and the church hopes to give China's small Orthodox community a place to continue growing.

Pozdnyaev estimated that his Beijing flock is nearly 400 strong, and that at least 50 regularly attend Sunday service, which are usually conducted by laymen. The figure swells by several hundred more when a festival like Pashca (Orthodox Easter) occurs, even though local law forbids locals from attending services on foreign diplomatic properties.

Given Beijing's influx of Russian traders and students, the numbers filling Beijing's only functioning Orthodox church have been steady. Last year more than 300 marched as part of an Easter procession on the grounds of the Russian embassy in Beijing.

Apart from Russia and Greece, the Eastern Orthodox church has a significant following across Eastern Europe, but its following in Beijing, explained Pozdnyaev, is very international. Most are Russian "but there are even French, American and British people." Multi-national worshippers brought dyed Paschal eggs for blessing during a recent nighttime Easter procession.

Behind closed doors

The Orthodox Church emerged from an 11th century splintering of the Catholic Church when figureheads in Rome and Constantinople (today's Istanbul) fell out of favor with one another.

Orthodoxy made the front pages early this year when visiting Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin brought an army of cameramen along to witness him reopening the church stationed on the embassy's grounds, closed since the days of Khrushchev.

Some parts of the church, however, remain off limits. Local believers are typically disappointed to learn that they have to register with the embassy to get access to their church. "It's not like you can just show up and pray when you feel like it," said one frustrated believer, a native of the Siberian town Krasnaryarsk, and long-time resident of Beijing. Though she said she was actually more frustrated with the lack of regular masses.

The church's schedule can be complex, explained Pozdnyaev. There is no permanent priest in Beijing, and followers have to rely on priests like Pozdnyaev visiting Beijing to celebrate mass.

Born in Russia, Pozdnyaev was ordained 16 years ago before he moved to Hong Kong in 2002. The 39-year-old clergyman, who administers the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul Parish in Hong Kong, gives services in Russian and English when in Beijing.

Spreading the gospel

The 400 foreigners who attend services at the Church of the Repose of Holy Virgin do not make up the entire local Orthodox congregation. Some 200 Orthodox Chinese in Beijing cannot attend services because the church is located inside the Russian embassy. "I know many of them, but not all," said Pozdnyaev who even in Hong Kong has been helping reach out to believers in the capital.

Thanks to a mammoth translation project, Pozdnyaev's congregations in Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland will soon have the necessary books to follow their faith. In 2008 alone, five titles were translated into Mandarin. The books are printed in Hong Kong, but they are not distributed on the Chinese mainland, "but if people buy them in Hong Kong, they can bring them back," Pozdnyaev said.

The history of Orthodox Christians in China dates back to the arrival of believers from neighboring Russia in the 17th century. The Russian Orthodox Church opened its mission in Beijing as part of an overseas effort to the Orthodox cause. Given surprisingly lean treatment by the Qing court – which didn't allow other faiths to establish missions – the church would eventually become Russia's diplomatic representation in China, positioning the grounds of its church next to the old city's east gate.

In its heyday, the Orthodox church had 300,000 believers in China (a third of them coming from Russian-ruled Manchuria) and over 200 parishes. The founding of the People's Republic of China meant that the church would come under Chinese administration, which was followed by the Sino-Soviet split, leading to the departure of foreign clerics. Soviet leaders meanwhile ordered the destruction of churches on the grounds of the USSR embassy in Beijing.

The future of orthodoxy

Though only one church has been re-built, there are three total churches in Beijing, all situated on embassy's grounds. There are other Orthodox churches in western Xinjiang (found in Yining and Urumqi), while other Orthodox strongholds can be found in Harbin and Erguna (Inner Mongolia), which have their own churches but no clergy to conduct services. The church's community in Beijing is bigger, thanks to a sizeable local Russian presence, but the congregation in Beijing is dwarfed by the number of Chinese believers in Inner Mongolia, explained Pozdnyaev.

As more and more Chinese clerics have died off or left the country, there are no bishops remaining to ordain future clergymen. An estimated 10,000 members of the Chinese Autonomous Church are searching for religious leaders.

In a bid to replace veteran Chinese Orthodox churchmen Fr Mikhail Wang and Protodeacon Evangelos Lu Yaofu, both of whom have retired, the local Orthodox community sent a dozen Chinese students to seminaries in Moscow and St Petersburg. Several have already completed their studies and returned to China.

Still laymen, the graduates are nonetheless "ready to be ordained in terms of education level and experience of religious life," explained Pozdnyaev. Some of them are working in officially opened Churches in the Chinese mainland. Pozdnyaev hoped local authorities will grant the seminarians permission to practice as priests in China. "The local Chinese community needs Chinese priests, there is no one left today."

Local Orthodox believers hope China will recognize their church among its list of officially sanctioned faiths (Catholicism and Protestantism are both currently among the five officially approved faiths, along with Buddhism, Islam and Taoism).
There has been inchoate progress, partly thanks to the efforts of Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, who has aligned himself with the Orthodox Church, and with China.

In November 2009 a high-level delegation of Russian Orthodox clerics travelled to Beijing for talks with the Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) which oversees religions in China. The talks are set to continue as part of an action plan to implement the Treaty on Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation between Russian and China by 2012. Accompanied by senior Russian diplomats, the Russian delegation included a Moscow-based archbishop charged with external church relations.

If Orthodoxy is recognized as an official religion there may be many more onion domes rising over China, which is home to approximately 30 million Catholics and Protestants. Preparing for a bright future, Orthodox bodies in both US and Australia raise funds to pay for Chinese translations of the Church's holy books.

It might be an imperfect arrangement, with him shuttling up from Hong Kong, but for now Pozdnyaev is very happy to once again have a church in Beijing. Emerging from Trakktir, a favourite Dongzhimen eatery of the local Russian community, and a stroll from his church, he's quietly confident of an Orthodox future for China.