CHINA: Government Prevents Orthodox Parishes from Having Priests.

Tatyana Titova and Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 14 November 2001

The Orthodox parish in Harbin, as well as the four other surviving Orthodox parishes in China, remain without a priest and without services, Father Dionisi Pozdnyayev, the Moscow Patriarchate's main expert on Chinese Orthodoxy, told Keston News Service, more than a year after the Russian Orthodox Church began asking the Beijing government for permission to send a priest or priests. The parish of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God in Harbin in China's north-eastern Heilongjiang Province was the last in China to have its own priest, but with the death in September 2000 of Father Gregory Zhu Shipu this parish too has been without a priest (see KNS 11 October 2000). Chinese officials have made no response to any of the letters and appeals from the Moscow Patriarchate, Father Dionisi reported. In contrast to the situation in China itself, following a recent visit to Beijing and Hong Kong by Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, the head of the Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations, a Russian Orthodox priest may be allowed to visit Hong Kong to hold services.

Apart from Harbin, Father Dionisi, who works at the Department for External Church Relations with responsibility for South East Asia, said the other Orthodox parishes are located in Labdarin (Inner Mongolia), Urumqi, Chuguchak and Kulj (Xinjiang Province). Not one of them holds services because of the absence of priests. "China is the canonical territory of the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church, whose fate cannot be a matter of indifference to us," Father Dionisi told Keston in Moscow on 12 November.

He said that Metropolitan Kirill had written to the director of the government's Religious Affairs Bureau in Beijing, Ye Xiaowen, proposing a dialogue on a wide range of issues. Previous letters sent to the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, had received no response. The Moscow Patriarchate has also appealed to the Chinese embassy in Moscow, but a meeting between Metropolitan Kirill and the ambassador was also fruitless. "The reason for the silence is that the Chinese authorities have not taken our requests seriously," believes Father Dionisi.

On 12 November, the spokesman of the Chinese Embassy in Moscow refused to answer Keston's questions about the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church, saying they were too "complex". He was also unable to say what had happened to the Russian Orthodox Church's appeals to the Chinese embassy in Moscow, as these appeals had been made under the former ambassador, on whose departure most of the embassy staff had been changed, including the spokesman. Contacted in Beijing on 14 November, an official of the Religious Affairs Bureau was unable to give Keston any immediate response as to whether the government would give permission for an Orthodox priest from Russia to serve in Harbin or other Chinese cities. "Our director, Ye Xiaowen, is away in Anhui Province on business," the official told Keston, "and the head of the Christian affairs department, Ma Yuhong, is away on business in Guangdong Province. Only they can answer your questions." The official promised that Keston's written questions would be answered on their return.

On 7 November, during a pastoral visit to South East Asia, Metropolitan Kirill visited Beijing, though he spent only a few hours there and did not hold any official meetings. "The format of the visit did not allow for that. As all our appeals had remained unanswered, we could not insist on it," Father Dionisi explained to Keston. According to the Russian Orthodox Church's official website, the Russian embassy in Beijing is the only place in China where Orthodox services are conducted.

During Metropolitan Kirill's visit to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, several dozen Russian-speaking Orthodox believers expressed a wish to form a congregation that could be served by a Russian Orthodox priest. Asked by Keston whether the appointment of a permanent Russian Orthodox priest in Hong Kong had been discussed, Fr Dionisi explained that the talks had related only to visits by a priest to serve his compatriots. Currently, Orthodox believers of Russian birth are served by the Greek Church of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist St Luke, under the Constantinople Patriarchate.

A spokesman for Constantinople's diocese of Hong Kong and South East Asia told Keston from Hong Kong on 14 November that Metropolitan Nikitas had not made any attempt to send a priest from his jurisdiction to the Harbin parish or any of the other Orthodox parishes in China itself. (END)