- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

BEIJING — China’s smallest religious sect, founded 300 years ago by captured Czarist soldiers, has lost its last priest, but is continuing its struggle for the right to pray together.

The Southern Cathedral in Beijing was suffused with the smell of incense as 50 members of the Chinese Orthodox Church attended a funeral Mass for Father Alexander Du Lifu, 80. But his burial is not necessarily the end of a dying tradition.

The Orthodox community now has would-be priests training in Russia for the first time since China became communist. Its being allowed to hold a funeral service at all was a breakthrough.

But the state refuses to acknowledge its existence legally, which means that it is banned from holding regular services despite the country’s supposed freedom of religion.

“We are in negotiations with the religious-affairs bureau to have the church recognized,” said Wang Linru, Father Du’s niece. “But it is very difficult.”

Beijing’s Orthodox Christians are based around a sect known as the Albazinians, who, according to tradition, are descendants of five soldiers who survived a war between Russia and China in the 1680s. One was named Dubinin, and Du is the Chinese version of the surname.

The Emperor Kangxi was said to be so impressed by their height and good looks that he allowed them to marry ladies-in-waiting from the Forbidden City.

As late as 1956, the community still lived by the city’s northeastern gate and had its own dairy business.

But then their land was handed over to the Soviet Union for its embassy, and the church was turned into the embassy garage.

Father Du took the icons and continued to pray in secret at home, while assigned to work until his retirement in a plastics factory.

To the last, he lived in terror of the authorities, according to those who knew him.

The most serious persecution took place after relations between the two communist powers broke down, and many Chinese Orthodox were accused of being Russian spies.

Among them was Father Du’s cousin, who was arrested and killed in prison during the Cultural Revolution.

Religions now are allowed to practice as long as they meet the strict terms of the religious-affairs bureau.

But although the 10,000 Russian Orthodox who live in areas near the Russian border are allowed to meet, the Chinese Orthodox community is considered too small to count.

“It is not possible that the government will accept them as a legal religion,” an official spokesman said. “It is only a religion inside a small circle. Our responsibility is to look after and manage accepted religions.”

Miss Wang, who like other Albazinians maintains a Russian Orthodox name, Matrona, said when she was a small girl, the family’s faith was a secret kept even from her.

Although her older brothers were baptized in the 1940s, she had to wait until 1997.

Now, she hopes better times lie ahead. But she admits change might come too late for the older generation.

“My uncle always wanted to see the Orthodox Church resume practice in China again and was very pleased that Chinese were studying at seminaries. But he lost hope that it would happen in his lifetime,” she said.

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