Since the 1950s, China has recognised five religious denominations: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism.
It may soon recognise another – Orthodox Christianity – as Moscow and Beijing move ever closer.
This week, the countries’ two presidents met for the twelfth time at a back-to-back BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Ufa in Russia. In September they are due to meet again when Vladimir Putin travels to China to help mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Asia.
The restoration of the Russian Church has political importance for Putin. In 2007 he was widely praised for helping to bring the largely US-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) back into communion with Moscow. The overseas arm of the church declared independence in 1927 after the church in Russia professed loyalty to the atheist Bolshevik government.
The Russian Orthodox Church in China also had to distance itself from Moscow in order to carry on functioning. In 1956 it was granted nominal independence from the mother Church so the new Communist government in Beijing wouldn’t deem it an instrument of Russian influence.
For a while that meant the three minorities who practice orthodoxy in China – the Evenks, Albazinians and ethnic Russians – were ministered to by the so-called Chinese Orthodox Church.
But that organisation – which was tolerated but never recognised – was all but wiped out during the Cultural Revolution. Mikhail Wang Quanshen, the last of its original clergy, died in Shanghai last month at the age of 91.
Prior to that there had been several cases of Russian priests being deported for working in China illegally. Now, however, it seems China is poised to recognise a new priest and possibly even go as far as granting the faith legal status. Speaking in Moscow the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill said a Chinese man named Yu Shi had been ordained and was working in the northern city of Harbin. “Efforts to normalise the work of the autonomous Chinese Orthodox Church is actively progressing… one of the Chinese students at the seminary in St Petersburg has been ordained and he now has the ability to carry out his ministry in China,” RIA News quoted him as saying.
According to a Russian Orthodox Church report there are 15,000 Orthodox Christians in China today, but Chinese scholars believe there are probably only a few thousand.
For much of the last 40 years these Chinese Christians have had no one to conduct worship or deliver sacraments. “What we need is someone who knows how to lead us in prayer, to hold mass, conduct baptisms, hear confessions and hold funeral rites,” the Global Times quoted Petro Krachoycov, an ethnic Russian from Xinjiang as saying. The newspaper also said China’s Academy of Social Sciences had recently held a seminar on the faith.
If Beijing were to grant the Chinese Orthodox Church recognition it would be further proof that the two superpowers of the Eurasian landmass are overcoming decades of mistrust.
Last month Russia made a magnanimous gesture by allowing a Chinese company to rent 200,000 hectares of farmland in Siberia (see WiC287). A decade ago such a deal would have been unthinkable because of widespread – and probably misplaced – fears of Chinese migration.
Today the cooperation between the two nations also extends to high-speed trains as well as gas and oil pipelines. And while some extremist politicians in Moscow have decried the Siberian lease, Putin’s chief of staff Sergei Ivanov defended it: “We do not have enough population. If a Chinese investor wants to cultivate virgin land 200km from the border and grow vegetables there – so do it, for God’s sake.”
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