Russian Patriarch visits China

The newly elected Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill met a delegation of the People's Republic of China led by Ye Xiaowen, head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, who is well-known for his anti-Vatican attacks.

The meeting took place on 2 February but was reported only yesterday on the Orthodoxy in China website. Kirill thanked Ye for the visit which took place "on the day of my enthronement", he said. As a matter of fact, it occurred a day earlier.

The patriarch noted that the two had already met in 2006 during the World Summit of Religious Leaders held in Moscow at the time of a G8 summit.

"It was a very good meeting and satisfactory conversation", said Kirill. "Since that time our relationship has received many positive developments," he added.

Improving relations between Russian and Chinese Orthodox (about 15,000 spread across China's vast territory) is even included in the Sino-Russian Treaty of good neighbourliness for 2009 - 2012.

When he was in charge of the Moscow Patriarchate's External Relations Department, Kirill had tried for the years to get the Chinese to allow the Russian Orthodox Church to train Chinese Orthodox seminarians train so as to re-establish a Chinese Orthodox clergy.

Several times the new patriarch had offered to send Russian clergymen to China for the care of Orthodox worshippers, to little success because religious freedom is not fully guaranteed in China since the Orthodox Church is not a recognised religious organisation in the country.

In recent years the late Patriarch Aleksij tried to get China to open up through Vladimir Putin's influence and China's need for Russian oil.

During his meeting with Ye, Kirill mentioned the various problems Orthodox communities face in mainland China. They include rebuilding the Dormition church on the grounds of the Russian Embassy in Beijing and the lack of Orthodox clergy in Harbin, Urumqi, Ghulja (Yining) and Labdarin (E'erguna).

The Russian Orthodox Church arrived in China some 300 years ago. Its first communities were made up of Russian immigrants concentrated in the north of the country. Currently most believers are still of Russian origin, living in four main locations: Harbin (Heilongjiang), where there is a parish dedicated to the protective mantle of the Mother of God, in Labdarin (Outer Mongolia), and in Kulj and Urumqi (Xinjiang).

China's Cultural Revolution had devastating effects on Orthodox bishops and priests. Still today there are no local priests and worshippers meet on and off on Sundays to pray.

There are however 13 Chinese Orthodox seminarians studying at the Sretenskaya Theological Academy in Moscow and the Academy of St Petersburg.

Russian Orthodox priests come to China on Christmas and Easter to celebrate various services but inside Russia's embassy and consulates.

China's Orthodox Church is a separate jurisdiction, but the Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople are trying to draw it into their fold.

Hong Kong-based Metropolitan Nektarios' jurisdiction comes under that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople. His seat publishes material for Chinese worshippers and the metropolitan has often stressed the need for greater religious freedom in China.