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
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.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!