Russia

Russian Orthodox Patriarch In China Seeking Official Recognition, Global Expansion

Patriarch Kirill is trying to expand Russian Church's influence in West and East. But Beijing is tricky terrain for religious head.

Patriarch Kirill Harbin and St. Sophia Orthodox Church in Harbin, northeastern China
Patriarch Kirill Harbin and St. Sophia Orthodox Church in Harbin, northeastern China
Pavel Korbov

BEIJING - Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, is in China this week for a five-day official visit that Chinese officials are heralding as a historical first.

Kirill’s visit is not strictly religious, but also diplomatic, with Chinese authorities hailing it as a major event in bilateral relations. “You are the first higher religious leader from Russia to visit our country,” said Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party in China upon his arrival. “This is a clear signal of the highly developed level at which Chinese-Russian relations operate.”

In Moscow, the Orthodox Church echoed the warm sentiments, declaring that “the Patriarch’s visit is meant to strengthen the friendly relationship between the two countries.”

Indeed, the religious element is the more thorny aspect of the visit, with both the distant and more recent past looming over Kirill's presence.

The Orthodox religion first arrived in China in the 17th century, when Fater Maksim Leontev settled in Beijing. In 1713 a Russian religious mission was established in China. In 1957 the Chinese Orthodox Church was officially established as an autonomous church. In 1965, after the death of its last Priest, the Chinese branch of the Russian Orthodox Church was left leaderless.

In 1997, the Russian Orthodox Church decided that until the Church established an official leader in China, leadership would, by default, go to the patriarch of Moscow and all of Russia. Beijing does not officially recognize the Orthodox Church, which counts a modest 15,000 faithful in China.

“The Patriarch’s visit to communist China is an important event in the history of the church, and it could be compared in importance to Kirill’s visit last year to Catholic Poland,” says Anatolii Pchelintsev, a professor at the center for the Religious Studies at the Russian Public University for the Humanities. “The Patriarch is trying to expand the spiritual influence of the Orthodox Church both in the West and in the East, to strengthen the Church in the world.”

In his opinion, Kirill made the visit to try to convince the Chinese government to legalize Russian Orthodoxy. “China is our close neighbor, that is why the Russian Orthodox Church considers it important to have a dialogue with the Chinese government, to build a spiritual bridge between Russia and China, and for that to be possible, there has to be an official church in China,” Pchelintsev continued.

Changing history

Patriarch Kirill used a meeting with Orthodox Chinese to openly declare his desire for recognition. “I really hope that the Chinese Orthodoxy Church will be officially recognized," he said. "I hope that there is soon a Chinese bishop. Until that happens, the Russian Church is responsible before God for the fate of the Chinese Orthodox believers.” He added that it is the ordination of Chinese priests that would clear the way for official recognition by the Chinese authorities.

It should also be noted that this is not the first time that the issue of the status of the Russian Orthodox Church has come up. In spite of the declarations from the Chinese government, this is also not the first time a Patriarch has visited China – Patriarchs have visited in 1993, 2001 and 2006, and each time the Patriarch has tried, unsuccessfully, to get the Chinese government to add Russian Orthodoxy to the list of officially recognized religions.

In China, there are five religions that are officially recognized: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. There are around 300 million believers in the country, including around 100 million Buddhists, 40 million Protestants, 10 million Catholics and 20 million Muslims.

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