Twilight for China's Orthodox

SUN JOURNAL

Faith: Russian church clashes with Beijing officials over the future of a struggling Christian population.

April 08, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HARBIN, China - As snow swirled around the green dome of the Virgin Mary Patron Orthodox Church one recent Sunday morning, 77-year-old Valentina Han led the congregation inside through a short, candlelight service.

Bundled up in heavy wool coats, sweaters and hats, some of the three dozen parishioners simply hummed along as Han's Slavonic words echoed through the nave. Most of the congregation's Russian-speaking members died long ago. Some of their descendants still attend but don't understand Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox faith.

"We can't sing," says Guan Enfeng, 45, who, like many in the church, comes from Russian and Chinese parents. "No one taught us."

Han, Guan and their fellow parishioners are among the last remaining souls of a long-lost era. Together, they are trying to keep China's three-century-old tradition of Russian Orthodox Christianity alive in this city, in the nation's frozen northeast.

China was once home to more than 100 Orthodox churches, but Virgin Mary is the only one of its kind still operating. Soon, it too may close.

The pastor, the Rev. Grigori Zhu, died last year. So far, China's Religious Affairs Bureau, which enforces the nation's restrictive religious laws, shows no interest in helping the church stay open.

The Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow has offered to send a new priest or to train a Chinese replacement. Church members have even found a young man willing to study in Russia and return and lead bilingual services.

The government, which strenuously opposes foreign influence on China's churches, has responded to the proposal with silence. Officials declined interview requests on the subject. Harbin's Religious Affairs Bureau is rumored to want to convert the church into a museum and tourist attraction that might sell Russian food.

Some here think local officials are just waiting for the parishioners to die.

"I can't say that there are any signs that the authorities of the Chinese People's Republic are striving to solve the problem," says the Rev. Dionisy Pozdniaev, an official with the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. "If no priest is found for a church, one can expect that this church will either be closed in the course of time or will be occupied by some sect."

If the church closes, it will mark the official end of Russian Orthodox Christianity in China. Though adherents will continue to gather in unregistered or "underground" churches, the faith will no longer have a fully functioning, legal church in China.

It would seem an ignoble death. The Russian Orthodox Church survived the martyrdom of 222 of its members in China and the destruction of many of its buildings during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976. With the end of Virgin Mary parish, Harbin would lose its last living Russian colonial influence, a cultural force that made Harbin one of the most vibrant cities in East Asia during the early decades of the 20th century.

China's first Russian Orthodox church opened in Beijing in 1685, but the faith did not begin to spread until the end of the 1800s. At that time, Harbin was little more than a fishing village along the banks of the Songhua River in what was known as Manchuria.

Harbin began to change after 1896, when Russia pressured China's Qing Dynasty to permit the extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok through northeastern China.

In 1917, Russian railway workers in Harbin were joined by thousands of White Russians fleeing the Bolshevik revolution. With the addition of French, Germans and Poles, the city's European community swelled to 100,000.

Local Chinese called the newcomers "laomaozi," literally "old hairy ones." Harbin emerged as an international city dotted with onion-domed churches and an eclectic mix of colonial buildings in styles ranging from Renaissance to Romanesque.

Today, much of the Russian influence is gone or diluted. Harbin's best Russian restaurant opened just a few years ago across the street from a Kenny Rogers' Roasters.

St. Sophia, a majestic Orthodox church downtown, is draped in red lights and blinks like a Christmas tree at night. A speaker in one of the church's needle-nose spires blasts a Muzak-like version of the "Titanic" song, "My Heart Will Go On," for visiting tourists.

Harbin retains some Old World charm, especially when blanketed in snow. Some colonial buildings survive along the city's cobblestone Central Street where hulking, Baroque figures of a half-naked man and woman still hover over the entrance to what is now the New China bookstore.

An exhibit inside St. Sophia, which now serves as a museum, captures part of the city's golden age. On one wall hangs a hand-painted postcard of foreigners dining at a restaurant on Sun Island in the middle of the Songhua River. A man wearing a white straw boater strolls along on the sand, accompanied by women in long white dresses with bows tied in front.

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