As the Russian Patriarch embarks on a five-day visit to China, Kommersant’s Pavel Korobov takes a look at the history, current reality, and future prospects of Orthodoxy in China.
The ROC Acquires Chinese Literacy
Patriarch Kirill arrived in China on a five-day official visit. The leadership of the PRC has already called the First Hierarch’s visit an historical event – never before has the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) been to the country. Experts believe that the visit will help the Orthodox Church acquire official status in China.
The visit of the ROC’s primate carries not only a religious character, but also a diplomatic one, as the Patriarch is accepted as an authoritative Russian representative in the PRC. “You are the first Russian religious leader who has visited our country,” Xi Jinping said upon meeting the First Hierarch. “This is a clear expression of the high level and special nature of Sino-Russian relations.” Sources in the Moscow Patriarchate likewise say that “the Patriarch’s visit is aimed at strengthening the friendly relations between the two countries.”
Orthodoxy first came to China in the 17th century, when the Russian priest Maxim Leontiev arrived in Beijing. The Russian Spiritual Mission to China was founded in 1713. In 1957, the Chinese Orthodox Church granted autonomy. In 1965, after the death of Simeon of Shanghai, the Church lost its episcopal leadership. The Synod of the ROC in 1997 made the decision that on account of the Chinese Church lacking its own primate, and while its Local Council had not yet elected another, care of the flock would be handled by the the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.
The PRC officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. There are up to 300 million of the faithful in the country, including about 100 million Buddhists, 40 million Protestants, 13 million Catholics, and 20 million Muslims. The number of Orthodox is approximately 15,000. It should be noted that this isn’t the first time that the status of the Orthodox Church has been raised in discussions. In particular, the current Patriarch – who was once the chairman of the ROC’s Department for External Church Relations – had already visited the PRC in 1993, 2001, and 2003, but the talks were unsuccessful.
“The Patriarch’s visit to Communist China is an important event in the history of the Church. Its significance can be compared with Kirill’s visit to Catholic Poland last year,” according to Anatoly Pchelintsev, a professor at the Center for the Study of Religion of the Russian State University for the Humanities. “The Patriarch is trying to expand the spiritual influence of Orthodoxy as in the West, so too in the East, and to strengthen the ROC’s position in the world.” He believes that Patriarch Kirill is trying to convince the Chinese leadership to legalize Orthodoxy in China. “China is one of our closest neighbors, so the ROC should foster a dialog with the Chinese authorities, and build a spiritual bridge between Russia and the PRC – and for that, an official Church is needed in China,” says Pchelintsev.
“I hope that the parishes of the Chinese Orthodox Church will be officially registered. I very much that at some time, there will appear a Chinese bishop,” he said at a meeting of the Patriarchy with Orthodox Chinese. “Until this happens, it is the Russian Orthodox Church that is responsible before God for the fate of Chinese Orthodoxy.” According to him, the ordination of Chinese priests could open the road to the registration of Orthodox parishes.