CHINA/XINJIANG: Orthodox 'Lose Hope' of Own Church.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 13 March 2002

"Since 1985 our community has been trying unsuccessfully to rebuild the Orthodox church. Officially nobody refuses us, but in actual fact the authorities are simply dragging things out," Galina Mirkuleva, a member of the Orthodox community in Yining, complained to Keston News Service on 10 March. Yining, a city in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region in China's north west 80 kms (50 miles) from the border with Kazakhstan, has the largest Russian community in China. Without a church, Keston was told, the community cannot hold any services.

Like other Orthodox parishes in China, the Yining community has no priest, as local priests have now died out and, Orthodox believers told Keston in Yining, Chinese law does not allow parishes to invite priests from abroad. Keston also visited the functioning Orthodox church in the city of Urumqi, Xinjiang's regional capital, which was reopened in 1985 after being closed for two decades, but it too has no priest. The Russian Orthodox Church has asked the Chinese authorities for permission to send priests to serve China's surviving Orthodox parishes, so far without success (see KNS 14 November 2001).

The first Russian settlers arrived in Yining in 1872 when the city was occupied by the Russian army. In 1878 Yining was returned to Chinese control but a small number of Russian settlers remained. A new wave of Russian immigrants arrived at the beginning of the 1920s when some of the White forces fled to the city. A further wave of immigrants arrived in the 1930s - this time peasants fleeing collectivisation in the USSR. After Stalin ordered the deportation of Chinese from the USSR in 1932, a number of people of mixed parentage (one parent Russian, the other Chinese) settled in Yining.

As a result, by the mid-1930s Yining's Russian community numbered over 2,000. At this time there were Russian schools and in 1937 St Nicholas Orthodox Church was erected. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, the church was destroyed and most of the local Russians emigrated from China. Today there are about 100 inhabitants of Yining who consider themselves Russian - mostly of mixed parentage.

"According to current Chinese law, places of worship are the property of the national communities," Aleksandr Zazulin, a member of the local Russian community and a former deputy of the Yining city assembly, told Keston on 10 March. He reported that although St Nicholas Church itself was destroyed, the surrounding church premises remained in good condition. "In 1985 the Yining city authorities illegally sold the plot of land, including the buildings remaining on it, into private ownership. However, according to the law, this territory should belong to the Russian community."

On a visit to the site where the church had stood Keston found only a vacant lot, with several half-destroyed buildings nearby.

"Chinese law forbids holding religious meetings in private homes," Mirkuleva added. "Since we Orthodox do not have our own church we simply cannot conduct any religious rituals. If the authorities returned to us what belongs to us by right - the territory of St Nicholas Church - we could sell the land and build ourselves a church." She told Keston that initially the authorities seemed willing to compromise and promised to build a church on the Russian cemetery. "In order to make way for the construction of the church, we moved the graves of our ancestors." She said the Chinese authorities began construction of the Orthodox church in 1999, but soon the work was halted. "Today we have lost hope that we will have our own church." (END)