Pilgrims visit graves of Russian ancestors
Descendants of Russian prisoners taken to Beijing after a border confrontation more than 300 years ago have returned to the Amur region to trace their roots and affirm their identity.
Up to 45 Russians were captured after a battle at Albazin, a fort in the Amur region, in 1685. They and their descendants intermarried with the Chinese, but remained a close-knit group bound by their Orthodox Christian faith. A small group of descendants recently seized the opportunity offered by a warming in Sino-Russian relations and signs of a relaxation of religious controls on the mainland to embark on a pilgrimage to the site of the fort, now known as the village of Albazino.
When the pilgrims visited a river bend the size of a football field where 500 of their ancestors were buried, they fell to their knees in drizzling rain and kissed the ground. Group leader Vassily Wang Zenglin loudly proclaimed: 'Your children are back!'
They arranged family photos and a large silver cross at the burial ground, and an Orthodox priest conducted a brief outdoor ceremony. A more formal service was later held in a nearby chapel.
Mr Wang is a nephew of Aleksandr Du Lifu, the last Orthodox priest in Beijing, who died in 2003. His sister, Madrona Wang Linru, is an activist dedicated to reviving the Chinese Orthodox Christian community.
The descendants of the Albazinians in Beijing are fighting to have their own church.
'It's been like a dream to stand on the ground of our ancestors,' Ms Wang said, scooping up the earth from the field and carefully filling a small jar. The idea of making the pilgrimage came to her when she saw pictures of John Chang Hsiao-yen, a son born out of wedlock to late Taiwanese president Chiang Ching-kuo, paying respect to the Chiang family shrine.
'Our ancestors brought the Orthodox faith to China and we want to practise the religion in our own church with our own priest,' she said.
About 20 Chinese students have studied in Russian seminaries and one is waiting to be ordained, but the State Administration of Religious Affairs and Beijing's Religious Affairs Bureau insist that any priest put in charge of the re-opened church must be ordained on the mainland by a Chinese bishop - and there are no Chinese Orthodox bishops.
Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the issue of reviving Orthodox churches during his visit to Beijing in October. Although the central government made no specific commitment, it has recently shown more flexibility.