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August 25, 2010

Orthodoxy In China Today: Difficulties and Prospects

20 August 2010

China is a country that isn't associated with Orthodoxy, however, according to tradition, Christianity was preached here by the Apostle Thomas and Orthodoxy came to the Chinese land in the late 17th century when the Chinese Army captured Cossacks with a priest in the Albasin fortress and took them to Beijing where they later founded the Russian community and the Ecclesiastical mission. The Rector of Sts Peter and Paul Parish in Hong Kong, Archpriest Dionisy Pozdnyayev, told Interfax-Religion correspondent Yelena Verevkina about Orthodoxy in China today, Orthodox believers, their difficulties and prospects.

- Russian believers don't know much about Orthodoxy in China and Hong Kong, if they don't study the subject on purpose. Supposedly, divine services are not allowed far and wide. What is the state of things with religious freedom in the country?

- Popular belief that Orthodoxy in China is banned is a serious mistake. In China, all religious movements are legally protected, have their rights, but there are certain conditions. The main condition for religious life of officially recognized religious organizations in the PRC is independence from foreign influences: these organizations should be self-financed, self-authorized and self-spread, it's so-called principle of triple independence is taken as guidelines for legislative practice in the 1950s. Thus, the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church should also observe this law. It doesn't exist at a national level, but there are four officially opened sites for celebrating Divine Liturgies: two of them are in the country's north-west in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, one in Harbin, and the last one in the city of Labdarin in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous District. These four churches belong to the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church. However, this Autonomous Church doesn't have any acting priests, let alone bishops, though groups of Orthodox believers live not only in these regions, but in other districts of the country as well, in particular, in big cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Tientsin, Guangzhou, in the Yunnan Province, but they don't have places for worship.

- Divine services can't be celebrated as there are no priests, and there are no priests as there are no bishops...

- Yes. According to the legislation, foreign priests can celebrate in Chinese churches, if local communities invite them and the service is approved in the Religious Affairs Administration.

- So you need to obtain permission on each divine service?

- Yes, but in practice we haven't had such cases when foreign priests, for instance Russian priests, celebrated divine services for Chinese citizens at these opened churches. There were services for foreigners as religious activities of foreigners are regulated with another special legislation.

- You can't celebrate for Chinese...

- De jure, I can.

- And de facto?

- We haven't had such practice, but I don't exclude a possibility that it can take place. There've been some positive tendencies this year and some steps of the Chinese authorities make us think it is possible. We were first time allowed to celebrate for foreigners in Harbin. Then there's a very old Chinese priest who is retired and lives in Shanghai. He was allowed to celebrate for Chinese citizens and foreigners were also allowed to the service. An Orthodox church is given to the Orthodox community in Shanghai for the time of Expo-2010, though the community still doesn't have legal status. Anyway, we can't say that authorities of the People's Republic of China are negative about Orthodoxy. The problem is in weakness of the parishes.

- Do you think that Christian teaching is close and comprehensible to an ordinary Chinese? Are they interested in Orthodoxy?

- Western Christians call the last thirty years the period of the golden age for Christianity in China as the number of Catholics and Protestants grows 13 percent a year. There's a great interest to Christianity, but Chinese people mostly see Catholicism and Protestantism that are much wider presented in China. Though I can say that academic circles show great interest to Orthodoxy, there's much feedback at our website, there are active discussions in the Chinese section of our forum dedicated to Orthodoxy in China. Ordinary and educated people show great interest to Orthodoxy as Catholicism and Protestantism don't answer some of their inner questions. There are certain things in the Chinese spiritual tradition that make Orthodoxy more attractive than Catholicism and Protestantism for the Chinese.

- The Moscow Theological Academy has opened optional courses of the Chinese language and culture for the students. Is there real need in such specialists?

- It's extremely important, we have to spare no effort. The whole Church should consider the question: on one side, it involves bordering dioceses, on the other, theological educational establishments, and, on the third, the Department for External Church Relations. In fact, each synodal department can do something in this direction. The topic of Orthodoxy in China should be lifted up to the level of the whole church.

- What is the Chinese attitude to relics of saints?

- They venerate relics. Buddhism has a tradition to place Buddha's relics in the foundation of each Buddhist temple, theoretically it should be so. There's no fear of death as this person is a saint. Certainly they have a pagan attitude to death, they are afraid of cemeteries, tombs, and touching a dead body is considered desecration, but when we speak about saints, it's quite a different matter. They are taken out of this sinful world. The Chinese understand it pretty well.

- So it doesn't appear contradictory to them?

- No. They remind me of the Lego construction set: everything is rather flexible, everything can be built in, new modules are easy to insert. It makes Chinese culture very interesting: it easily absorbs and adapts many things.

- Perhaps, it's one of the reasons of the Chinese economic wonder?

- To a certain degree. Today China is the country in process of reforms and transformations. It absorbs many things, from ideas and technologies to finances. China is open to the whole world: almost everything is taken, adapted and considered, and the future of China depends on the degree of such adaptation.

- What prospects does Orthodoxy have in China? What is needed to develop the mission?

- There are prospects. The main task is to solve the question of creating an Orthodox environment. We have to educate people and to bring up the Chinese, to give them education, to translate literature into the Chinese language. It should be realized as a problem of the whole Church. The main issue I see here (in fact, it's a traditional issue for missionary work abroad) and Nikolas of Japan also raised this issue in his diaries, is the problem of resources: both material and human. I think if this question of attracting maximum resources is settled, we will see very good prospects and results in the nearest future.