CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 15 June 2019

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Patriarch of Moscow becomes first religious leader to meet with a Chinese president


HONG KONG (Agencies): The Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia had an historic meeting with the president of the People’s Republic of China on May 10 in Beijing.

When Patriarch Kirill sat down to talk with Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People history was made, as he became the first religious leader to be received in audience by a president of the People’s Republic.

“You are the first Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia and the first high-ranking religious leader from Russia to visit our country. This is clear testimony to the high-level of Russian-Chinese relations,” Xi was quoted as telling the patriarch by RIA Novosti at their meeting in Beijing.

In reply, the patriarch stressed that Russia greatly values the fact that Xi had chosen Russia as the destination for his first foreign trip, saying, “(This is) testimony to the special relationship between Russia and China which has developed in recent years,” he said.

Although the Russian Orthodox patriarch had been expected to meet with a high ranking official, even a vice premier, during his historic visit, the meeting with Xi came as a surprise.

“The patriarch will very likely be received by a vice-premier or higher-ranking official,” Zhang Baichun, the director of the Russian Cultural Research Centre at Beijing Normal University, told UCA News on May 8.

“(Patriarch) Kirill’s visit to China shows that he recognises the inescapable influence of the figures and bodies that manage the religious policy imposed by the government and Communist Party of China,” Gianni Valente wrote in the Vatican Insider.

The official invitation to the patriarch to visit China was issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, a press release posted on the Harbin government website on April 16—but later removed—announced.

The Church responded on its own Chinese Weibo account saying, “We are very touched that our government is concerned about the Orthodox faith. This is an unprecedented opportunity for us.”

The visit was not finally agreed upon until Xi visited Russia in March, UCA News was told.

Xinhua reported on May 10 that Xi noted that Russia and China are closely connected through a deep and traditional friendship. 

He added that on top of this, the two nations enjoy a relationship based on realistic, mutual need.

Xi recalled that in his meeting with the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, during his official state visit to Moscow in March, the two had agreed to further cooperation, which they see as a safeguard to peace, fairness and justice in the world, in addition to being for the welfare of the people of both nations.

The Chinese president added that the Russian Orthodox Church has consistently supported the development of relationships between the two nations, as well as standing up for the core interests of China on issues of sovereignty, security, territorial integrity and development.

Xi added that deepening the religious exchange between the two is a valuable contribution to mutual understanding and appreciation between the two peoples.

He also expressed the hope that the Orthodox Church, and Patriarch Kirill himself, will be able to play a bigger role in the future in cementing relationships between the two neighbouring countries.

In response, the patriarch pointed out that the peoples of both countries cherish the independence of their nations, as well as holding the values of diligence and justice in high esteem.

He promised the president that his Church would hold out for the principles of equality and non-interference in its interaction with China, but will also strive to make forming friendship with China an integral part of Russian culture.

The reception of Patriarch Kirill by a Chinese president is highly significant, as with a 150 million members worldwide, the Russian Orthodox Church is second, in numerical size, only to the Catholic Church.

RIA Novosti reported that during the five-day visit of the patriarch he is expected to meet with high-ranking government officials, including staff from the State Administration for Religious Affairs and members of the Orthodox community in China.

During his visit, a Chinese edition of a book written by Patriarch Kirill, Freedom and Responsibility: In Search of Harmony. Human rights and the dignity of the person, will be presented to the public. 

It is published by the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate in association with the Russian-Chinese Business Council.

“The visit of his holiness the patriarch is aimed at further strengthening the friendly relations between China and Russia,” Interfax-Religion reported, citing the Patriarchate Press Service as its source.

It adds that the Orthodox Church has always played a special role in the history of the bilateral relations between the two countries. “Orthodox priests have been in China since 1685, as part of the Russian Orthodox Mission to the country and have done a lot to bring Russia and China closer,” it points out.

The Russian Orthodox Church has been actively present in China since the 17th century, when Father Maxim Leontiev arrived in Beijing. The Russian Spiritual Mission was established in 1713 and by 1949 had established more than 100 churches.

AsiaNews says in a review that in 1956, the Holy Synod granted autonomy to China’s Orthodox Church, but during the Cultural Revolution all its priests and bishops were either killed or disappeared.

Since the death of Bishop Simeon in Shanghai in 1965, the local Orthodox Church has not had any a high-ranking clergy in China, but in 1997, the Synod of the Russian Church decided to reassert its presence in China.

Today, the Orthodox Church claims up to 15,000 members in China, most of whom live in Heilongjiang province (Harbin), Inner Mongolia (Labdarin), Xinjiang (Kulj and Urumqi), Beijing and Shanghai.

However, there have been no priests, since the last one died in 2003. People can only gather to pray together on rare occasions on Sundays.

A group of Chinese Orthodox is studying at the Sretenskaya Theological Academy in Moscow and another at the Academy of St. Petersburg with the express intention of returning to China.

At major celebrations, like Christmas and Easter, expatriate priests are able to celebrate the liturgy inside the Russian embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai. 

Whether this visit by the patriarch will succeed in getting Orthodoxy added to the list of official religions in China or not remains to be seen. If it does, then it will be a big boost to its 15,000 to 20,000 members on the mainland.

Patriarch Kirill celebrated the Eucharist at the Beijing embassy on May 12, before heading north to Harbin, which has a large Russian population, for a two-day visit.

He will leave China from Shanghai on May 15.


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