Asia Times: Old time religion struggles to survive
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  January 12, 2002  

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Old time religion struggles to survive
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - Having fought Boxer rebels and Red Guards in the past, one religious group in China - the Orthodox Christians - has remarkably survived the twists of history in preserving its faith. But these days, China's rapid economic development and stubborn bureaucracy are threatening to obliterate the last traces of this religion in the country.

"We listened to the Christmas Mass with tears in our eyes," confessed Zhao Hongyou, one of the 50 worshippers who gathered with flowers and candles to celebrate the Orthodox Christmas on January 7 in the small cathedral inside the Russian Embassy in Beijing. That Christmas service was the first one preformed by the Russian Orthodox Church in China for about 50 years. Father Dionysis, a priest sent from Russia, gave Holy Communion to the congregation, which includes descendants of Cossacks brought from Russia to Beijing by the Qing Emperor Kangxi in 1685.

"The candles were too thin and the atmosphere was sort of lacking, but my mother was very moved to listen to the prayers again," says Zhao. "Some of our elders still remember what it was like before, when we had our own church and lived together in a community." But when the oldest surviving priest of the Chinese Orthodox church in Beijing, 80-year-old Father Alexander Du, dies, with him will die the congregation's hopes for preserving its unique historical and religious heritage.

Nearly all Chinese Orthodox believers in Beijing, several hundred at least, belong to the community of Albazines, descendants of the Russian Cossack war prisoners from the Albazin fortress on the Amur River who were captured during the many border skirmishes between China and Russia in the 17th Century.

As the Orthodox Church is not among the five religions officially recognized by the Chinese government, no priests can be educated or ordained - hence, the congregation is shrinking. Before the communist victory in 1949, there were 106 Orthodox churches in China. Today, there is only one active church, the Church of the Protection of Our Lady in the northeastern city of Harbin. All the other places of worship have either fallen under the wrecker's ball, been transformed into museums or, in the case of two Shanghai churches, become restaurants.

"We need our own church and we should build it here" in Beijiing, says Du Zhonglian, another Orthodox believer who also calls himself "Victor Dubinin" after his Cossack ancestor. He is pointing at the debris in front of the Russian Embassy here, where whole neighborhoods are being erased by city developers to make way for office buildings.

For nearly three centuries, Albazines and their families lived in a somewhat idyllic community on the grounds of the Russian Embassy in Beijing where the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Mission was located. Albazines had their own church, a big dairy farm, an orchard and an aviary. "In my childhood we still had some Swiss cows and the dairy was the biggest one in Beijing," recalls Du nostalgically.

History annals say that when Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi (1662-1723) brought the Cossacks to Beijing in 1685, he gave them the Guangi Miao, or the Temple of the War God, in the northeast corner of the imperial city, to live in. Albazines were allowed to worship and, a few years later, a priest, chosen by Peter the Great and sent from Russia, joined the Orthodox community.

"Emperor Kangxi liked the Cossacks - he thought they were big and strong and he favored them," is Du's explanation why the foreigners were awarded such special treatment. Legend has it that no Chinese woman would agree to get married to the foreigners, so Kangxi allowed the Albazines to take the wives of executed Chinese prisoners. But Zhao and Du, descendants of the Cossacks, dispute this legend. "We had a high status and Kangxi made us bannermen - Manchu aristocrats and members of the Embroidered Yellow banner," Du says. After three centuries of mixed marriages, Du, Zhao and fellow Albazines look Chinese, but they have preserved their Orthodox faith and the memory of their origins.

The Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900, an anti-Western and anti-missionary uprising in China, saw violent attacks against Chinese converts to Christianity. In 1900, Guan Miao, the place where the Albazine community lived, was laid to rubble and 222 Orthodox Chinese were murdered for refusing to renounce their faith. Although the Russian Orthodox mission and the church were later rebuilt, the Russian Revolution in 1917 separated the Orthodox Church of China from its traditional support base in Russia, and the Chinese church had to fend for itself.

After the communists came to power in China in 1949, treaties were signed between the Soviet and Chinese governments that provided for the turning over of Russian churches to Chinese control. In 1956, on the orders of then-Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev, the Soviet Embassy took over the territory of the Russian Orthodox mission and tore down the church. In 1957, the Chinese Orthodox Church was declared autonomous but its existence was short-lived. With the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, its clergymen were persecuted, tortured and exiled. Churches were closed, its group's property confiscated and all religious activity forbidden. "We have waited for this Christmas Mass for nearly 50 years," says Du Zhonglian.

Still, even nowadays, religious services can only be performed inside the Russian Embassy, where, after the collapse of the Soviet empire, a new church was built. In Beijing, there is no other place of worship for Orthodox believers and the only surviving Chinese Orthodox priest, Father Du, is too old to perform his priestly duties. Orthodox believers in Beijing, Harbin, Shanghai and other places have repeatedly asked the authorities to reactivate the autonomy of the Chinese Orthodox Church and help them with the training of new priests. They have not received any response so far.

"When I look at my son, I fear for our future," says Du Zhonglian. "He cannot understand the Slavonic church services, because he cannot understand Russian. After 300 years of history, what will be left of us?"

Sects hit by crackdown
Chinese state media report that leaders of an evangelical Protestant group were sentenced without trial late last month to re-education through labor. "Backbone" members of the Association of Disciples [Mentuhui] were sentenced "in accordance to law" for setting up a chapter in northwestern Lintao city, Gansu province.

The report follows an international flap over China's treatment of Li Guangqiang, a Hong Kong trader arrested in July. China claims Li had been transporting Bibles into China as cover for secretly importing banned booklets associated with an "evil cult". A White House spokesman said this week that US President George W Bush was taking a personal interest in the Li case.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said Li conspired to transport more than 16,000 of an "evil cult's" booklets into the city of Fuqing in the coastal province of Fujian from Hong Kong last May. A Hong Kong-based rights group said Li delivered 33,000 Bibles to the "Shouters' sect", an underground Christian group. The rights group made no mention of cult booklets, but said Li could face the death penalty on charges of "using an evil cult to damage law-based society".

Sun dismissed a call by Bush to use international standards in dealing with Li, saying it was an internal matter.

The Association of Disciples members incarcerated last month were accused of setting up "home sects" in villages in the Tingxi district, of "cheating the people" and "disturbing social order". A large rally was reportedly held to announce the sentences and "educate" the local population of the dangers of the group.

The Association of Disciples is one of many clandestine evangelical Protestant groups that have flourished in the past two decades despite harsh attempts to wipe them out. The group was founded in 1989 in a rural district of northern Shaanxi province and boasts up to 500,000 followers.

During the nearly three-year crackdown on the Buddhist Falungong group, Chinese authorities have worked to eradicate Protestant sects under the same vague references to "evil heretical sects" in China's criminal code. Re-education through labor is an administrative punishment that normally does not exceed three years, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy. The lack of judicial procedure and beatings and torture of prisoners in Chinese labor camps have come under strong criticism from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

(Asia Times Online/Inter Press Service)

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