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Toward a rebirth of the Orthodox Church in China - Interview with Mitrophan Chin

Jean-François Mayer

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While the presence of Western Christian Churches in China is a well-known fact, many people are not aware that the Orthodox Church has also been present in that country for more than 300 years. In this interview, the webmaster of Orthodox.cn, Mitrophan Chin, tells us more about the history, current situation and prospects for the Orthodox Church in China.

The Orthodox Church in China was given a status of autonomy by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1956 and had two Chinese bishops, several priests and possibly up to 20,000 faithful in the early 1960s.

But it has never fully recovered from the turmoils of the "cultural revolution" of the 1960s and its antireligious policies. In December 2004, the last Chinese Orthodox priest living in China, Father Alexander Du Lifu, passed away in Beijing at the age of 80. He did never manage to get permission from the government to open a church in Beijing: the authorities argued that the community (about 300 faithful) was too tiny.

However, there are efforts from several sides to revive Orthodox life in China, and a few Chinese students are reported to be currently training in Russian theological schools. According to estimates by Father Dionisy Pozdnyaev, who is in charge of Chinese affairs at the Department of External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, there are some 13,000 Orthodox faithful living in China. There are parishes - without clergy - in Xinjiang, in Inner Mongolia and in Harbin, where the Russian church building is a local landmark. The Moscow Patriarchate would like to see the Orthodox Church recognized officially, but its small size seems to present an obstacle.

Attempts to revive Orthodoxy in China also take place in virtual space. An Orthodox believer of Chinese background living in the United States, Mitrophan Chin, is the webmaster of the website Orthodoxy in China (http://orthodox.cn), which was launched in Spring 2004. In this interview, he tells us more about the history, current situation and prospects for the Orthodox Church in China.

Religioscope - How did Orthodoxy reach China first, more than 300 years ago?

Mitrophan Chin - Orthodoxy reached China with the eastern expansion of the Russian empire across the Siberian Far East in 1651. At around the same time in 1644, the Ming dynasty was overthrown in China by the Manchurians who introduced the Qing dynasty which lasted until the Nationalist revolt of 1911. The Russian Cossack settlements along the Amur River at Albazin eventually was met by fierce attacks by the Chinese army in 1685 which led to the downfall of Albazin, and the captives were taken to the capital city of Beijing.

Religioscope - The first Orthodox in China could thus be described as "immigrants". When did missionary activities directed toward Chinese begin, and how successful were they?

Mitrophan Chin - Missionary activities started when a number of the original captives of the Albazinians were given the honor to serve the Chinese Emperor Kangxi in the Imperial capital of Beijing in one of the most prestigious banners of the honor guards. The first Orthodox priest, Fr Maxim Leontiev, was sent unwillingly to provide spiritual guidance to these new Albazinian immigrants. An old Buddhist temple was provided at the northeastern corner of the capital, and it was converted to an Orthodox chapel bearing the name of St Nicholas the Wonderworker in honor of the miracle-working icon that Fr Maxim brought along with him.

Thus the seed of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission has been planted on Chinese soil. In the 200 years leading up to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the Mission took in only a small number of indigenous Chinese converts, mostly through inter-marriage with the Albazinians. This stood in stark contrast with active missionary efforts by rival Catholic and Protestant missionaries.

Religioscope - Orthodoxy in China had its first martyrs at the time of the uprising of the Boxers, which not only targeted Catholics and Protestants, but Orthodox as well. Your Christian name, Mitrophan, is the name of a martyred Chinese priest, isn't it?

St Mitrophan, along with over 200 other Chinese and Albazinians in Beijing gave their lives up for the Christian faith during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, or the Yihetuan Movement as the Chinese called the uprising. Albazinians at this time have pretty much assimulated with the local population after two centuries of cohabitation. Their outward appearance is not much different from the majority Han Chinese population even though ethnically they consider themselves of Russian descent.

The interview was conducted online in October 2004. Mitrophan Chin was interviewed by Jean-François Mayer. Mitrophan Chin is webmaster of Orthodox.cn (Orthodox China).

Read this article on the ReligioScope website (new window will open).

Posted: 24-Feb-05

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