Friday, January 17, 2020

Russian Orthodoxy Clings Precariously to Life in China, Orientalist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 14 – Before the communists took power in China, there was a Russian Orthodox mission in Peking and large Orthodox communities in Harbin, Shanghai, Hong Kong and other Chinese cities where Russian emigres settled. But since 1949, those communities have almost completely disappeared and with them, Russian Orthodoxy as well.

            The Chinese authorities do not recognize Orthodoxy as one of the five traditional religions of their country. Instead, they define it as the faith of the Russian ethnic minority and in practice seek to prevent ethnic Chinese from taking part in Russian Orthodox church life. They have been remarkably successful.

            There is no bishop for the ROC in China – since 1997, the Moscow patriarch has assumed that role – and instead, a senior priest based in a 12th floor apartment in Hong Kong provides what guidance he can to the leaders of about ten ROC MP churches spread across China today.

            Some of the congregants are surviving descendants of the Russian emigration of the pre-1949 times. Others are foreigners who have come to Orthodoxy often through Protestantism and via English-language translations. Very few are Chinese. Moreover, Orthodoxy is divided: many declare their loyalty to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople rather than Moscow.

            In today’s NG-Religii, orientalist Sofiya Sklovskaya provides a rare glimpse into this community with a report on Harbin, Hong Kong and other Chinese cities where Russian Orthodox life continues its difficult existence, one suggested by the subtitle of her article “No Silk Road for the Russian Faith” in China (

            Harbin, once the center of Russian émigré and religious life in China, does have a recently restored Orthodox church, but only about 20 people attend services. No more than a handful are survivors of the emigration. The rest are Chinese. Services, however, are conducted in Russian, with the important parts translated into Chinese.

            Father Dionisii Pozdnyaev, who supervises Russian Orthodoxy in China from his perch in Hong Kong says that Beijing says there are 15,000 Orthodox believers in that country. But that number, which counts all Russians living in China as Orthodox, is an exaggeration. In fact, he says, “only about 2500” of them are believers.

            In the mid-1960s, the two Orthodox bishops who competed with each other for leadership of the ROC in China died within a few years of each other. No new leader could be elected or approved, and so in 1997, the Moscow patriarch assumed that role personally, with the Hong Kong office providing day to day direction.

            Father Dionisii says that a major problem is training enough priests. There are only two ethnic Chinese serving in that capacity now. Things may be about to get better: In March 2018, the ROC MP and Beijing agreed on a program to allow Chinese Orthodox to be trained in Russia. But so far nothing has come of this, Sklovskaya reports.

            In many places, the ROC MP in China does not have its own church building. Some congregations hold services in apartments even though this is a violation of Chinese law. Others use the buildings of other faiths, including Roman Catholics, or the facilities of diplomatic missions.

            In Beijing, for example, Orthodox services are held in the Russian embassy in a building that is “officially registered as a museum.  ROC MP officials have pressed for the restitution of ROC properties in China, but China has shown little interest in taking action on such requests. And some Chinese Orthodox suspect Moscow is less interested in this than it wants to appear.

            According to Aleksandr Yui Xi, “the ROC is more concerned with “the issue of restoring spiritual life in China than with the registration of congregations,” that is, Moscow wants to see a restoration of its spiritual mission in Beijing rather than promote the spread of the Orthodox faith as such.

            Such issues are likely to become flashpoints if Russia and China seek to become closer allies given that the Kremlin can hardly make concessions on such issues given the ways in which it has cast itself at home and abroad as a defender of the ROC MP. 

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