Beijing's Orthodox Christians hope they have marked their last Christmas at home The small Chinese Orthodox Christian community in Beijing may see their wish for a church of their own come true this year. Yesterday, Christmas Day according to the Julian calendar, they could only observe the occasion at their homes because their last church was closed in 1954. The community of 400, who trace their ancestry back to the first Russian settlers in Beijing in the 17th century, have not had a priest since Father Aleksandr Du Lifu died in 2003. Du's niece, Matlona Wang Linru , who has led the fight for a place for worship, said the State Administration of Religious Affairs was planning to set up a department for Orthodox affairs to handle their petitions. The Orthodox Christians previously faced an awkward situation because their faith fell outside the five religions - Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Protestant and Catholic christianity - recognised by the central government. The Regulation on Religious Affairs issued by the State Council last month no longer mentioned 'five religions', which is being seen as a positive step towards legitimising the activities of Orthodox Christians. Ms Wang said the remaining hurdle before receiving official approval for registration was to have a Chinese priest. Over the past five years, 18 students have been enrolled in Russian seminaries, and she hoped one would come back to lead the flock in Beijing in the coming year. Father Dionisy Pozdniaev, a Russian Orthodox priest based in Hong Kong, said the Chinese Orthodox community would apply for registration after the rules took effect on March 1. He said their petitions had previously been ignored, but according to the new rules, the authorities must give an answer in 30 days. The mainland has an estimated 13,000 Orthodox Christians, most of whom live in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang . Former Orthodox enclaves in the cities of Harbin and Shanghai have languished since white Russian emigres moved at the end of the second world war. The State Administration of Religious Affairs has been accommodating to the wishes of the Orthodox Christians in recent years. After the death of Du, it granted permission for an Orthodox memorial service in the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, commonly known as the South Church. In June 2000, when the Patriarch of Moscow honoured the 220 Orthodox Christians massacred during the anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion, the Chinese authorities made no fuss, in contrast to their strong reaction a few months later to the canonisation of Catholic martyrs. Father Dionisy visits Beijing every six weeks or so to say mass and administer the sacrament to expatriate Russian Orthodox Christians. Sources close to the Russian congregation said that much progress had been made in recent years thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had promoted Orthodox causes in the belief that a religious revival would strengthen the moral foundations of post-Soviet society. During his visit to Beijing in October, Mr Putin asked his hosts to permit the opening of an Orthodox church and made plans to restore the cathedral in the Russian embassy compound in Beijing, which now serves as a garage. The compound of the former Russian Ecclesiastical Mission was appropriated in the 1950s to become the Russian embassy, which, according to Guinness World Records, is the largest embassy in the world. For the Christmas vigil, the expatriates met in a small hall next to the former cathedral.