SOUTH-EAST ASIA: Russian Orthodox Expand their Presence.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 17 October 2002

Plans by the Russian Orthodox Church to open a church in the North Korean capital Pyongyang (see separate KNS article) are part of a wider move to expand the Church's activity both in communist and non-communist countries of South East Asia, which has had the support of Russian diplomats. "Some of this is with the support of the Foreign Ministry, some is the personal initiative of individual diplomats," Fr Dionisy Pozdnyayev of the Moscow Patriarchate's secretariat for inter-Orthodox relations told Keston News Service from the Russian capital on 17 October. He said priests already hold services in the Russian embassy in the Chinese capital Beijing, there is one registered parish in the Mongolian capital Ulan-Bator and another smaller community, and that a priest based in the Thai capital Bangkok frequently visits Cambodia and Laos. The Orthodox are also planning to build a church in Vietnam.

Fr Dionisy reported that services have been taking place in the Beijing embassy for the past six years when priests are available. "There is no chapel, but there is a place we can hold services. Such services are open for Russian citizens and other foreigners in Beijing, but not for Chinese citizens." Asked why not, he responded: "This is a measure to ensure the security of the embassy."

He stressed that other Orthodox parishes in China - in Harbin, Xinjiang and inner Mongolia, which barely function because of the lack of priests (see KNS 13 March 2002) - are not subject to the Moscow Patriarchate as the Chinese Orthodox Church is independent. "There are two priests and one deacon still alive, living in Beijing and Shanghai," he noted, "but all are very elderly and ill." Asked whether the Moscow Patriarchate is still pressing to be allowed to send priests to serve these parishes, he responded: "No. The Chinese authorities will not allow this. Chinese law does not permit foreigners to serve in religious communities there. This is one of the principles of Chinese religious policy." He said the "only way" for these parishes to acquire their own priests is for the Chinese authorities to allow local men to come to Russia or other countries to train for the priesthood. "We presented this idea to the Chinese authorities but there has been no response yet."

Fr Dionisy reported that the two surviving Orthodox church buildings in the southern coastal city of Shanghai are still being used as restaurants. Russian prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov had, he said, complained to Chinese officials while on a visit to the city during the summer that the use of former churches as restaurants was an insult to believers. "This had evinced a promise that they would be instead turned into museums, but as far as I know this has still not happened." He said the Russian Orthodox Church had not been able to raise the question of their return to religious use as they did not come under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Fr Dionisy noted that his Church "has the intention" to build a church in Vietnam, but noted that the "first contact" had only just been made. Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, the head of the Department of External Church Relations at the Moscow Patriarchate, discussed the issue last November during a visit to South-East Asia that took in Vietnam, China (including Hong Kong), Thailand and Cambodia. While in Vietnam Metropolitan Kirill held services in the Russian embassy in Hanoi and the Russian consulate in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), as well as at a Russian-run company. The Moscow Patriarchate stressed that those taking part in the services were not just Russian citizens and those in mixed Russian-Vietnamese marriages, but local Orthodox believers also.

During the November 2001 visit to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, Metropolitan Kirill served the liturgy in the chapel of the Bulgarian embassy. The Moscow Patriarchate reported at the time that "in answer to the appeals from the Orthodox flock in Cambodia", Metropolitan Kirill had appointed the Bangkok-based Fr Oleg Cherepanin to have pastoral oversight over the community and instructed him to visit Phnom Penh as often as he could. Fr Dionisy reports that he visits not only Cambodia but neighbouring Laos also, where services are held in the Russian embassy in the capital Vientiane. (END)