May 24, 2013 02:34 PM

Patriarch Kirill's China Mission


In 1712, the Qing Imperial Lifanyuan, or Office of Border Affairs, sent a message through a merchant to the governor of Siberia that some Orthodox priests would be welcome to administer to the religious needs of the small Russian community in Beijing. This historic event was recently on the mind of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, who became the first head of the Russian Orthodox Church to visit China. However, his Chinese host was preoccupied with more mundane matters.

The six-day visit started on May 10 and came after the Moscow summit in March, when President Xi Jinping met his counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow. Xi, receiving the 80-member Patriarchal delegation in Beijing, hailed the coming of the highest ranking religious leader from Russia as "an indication of the good relations of the two countries." Kirill's response was also cloaked in the diplomatic language of the new entente.

Since the two countries came into contact with each other, the orthodox church has been inseparable from grand politics of the imperial courts of China and Russia. For over 100 years, the spiritual mission did double duty, serving as the Russian diplomatic mission until the mid-19th century. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church in China fell on hard times. The White Russian émigrés came to China and left for other countries. After the communist victory in China, church buildings were converted to warehouses and the congregation dispersed. The renewed interest in reviving the orthodox church in China came only after post-communist Russia sought to put religion back to a central place in the spiritual life of its citizens.

Patriarch Kirill is no stranger to China. Prior to becoming head of the Russian church in 2009, he visited China four times as chairman in charge of external relations in the Patriarchate. The most urgent task concerning the orthodox church in China is training and ordaining clergy. No liturgy has been performed since the last active priest, Aleksandr Du Lifu, died 10 years ago. Although Kirill has sponsored Chinese students to study religion in Russia, it was not until last year that the Chinese government gave its blessing to two students enrolled in Russian seminaries. Kirill, in his meeting with officials from the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA), expressed his hope that these two will be duly ordained to serve the church in China. The Moscow Patriarchate estimates the total number of Orthodox believers in China at around 15,000. 

Unlike the consecration of Catholic bishops, which is considered in the eyes of the church invalid without papal approval, the Chinese Orthodox Church became "autonomous" in 1956, meaning that the making of bishops is up to Chinese Orthodox Christians without having to involve the Patriarch. But it remains unclear how the two seminarians can be ordained as priests in the absence of Chinese bishops.

Kirill was also concerned with the preservation of Orthodox church buildings in China. In Beijing, the only functioning church is Our Lady of Dormition in the Russian Embassy compound, serving the Russian and expat community but off limits to Chinese. In Harbin, the erstwhile center of White Russian émigrés, only one out of some 20 former churches still opens its door as place for prayers for the tiny Chinese congregation. In Shanghai, Kirill appealed to the local government to restore the cathedral and he shrewdly linked the "rebirth of this church" and the "rise of the great Chinese nation."

Understanding the importance of religion in post-communist Russia and the close relationship between political and religious leaders, China would not hesitate to make use of religion as leverage for political purposes. However, grand gestures of the past that spark hope invariably end in disappointment. Ten years ago, President Hu Jintao, after barely taking office, made his first trip abroad to Russia, an act that his successor followed. The Chinese Orthodox Christians in Beijing were given permission to observe Easter Sunday using a Catholic church, but it turned out to be a one-off event and was closely monitored. The 2008 Beijing Olympics were expected to bring détente for the benefit of athletes of the orthodox faith coming to compete, but nothing happened. Hope was raised and dashed in 2009, when SARA's director general, Ye Xiaowen, flew to Moscow to attend the grand ceremony consecrating Kirill as the new Patriarch. Not surprisingly, Kirill's historic visit to China was observed warily by church watchers.

Back in Emperor Kangxi's reign 300 years ago, a confident China was open to all religions: Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Russian Orthodox Christianity. Religious tolerance is the essence of civilization, not a brute command that is issued and revoked according to shifting political winds. The cynical use of religion as a pawn of international politics will only undercut China's campaign to gain respectability and soft power.

The author is a visiting professor at the School of Communication and Design of Sun Yat-sen University

You've accessed an article available only to subscribers
Share this article
Open WeChat and scan the QR code