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Russian Orthodox Church prospects for a Mission in Papua New Guinea Are Immense

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Russian Orthodox Church prospects for a Mission in Papua New Guinea Are Immense


Sergey Vinogradov

As the Russkiy Mirreported, residents of Papua New Guinea addressed the head of the Russian Orthodox Church with a collective petition to establish an Orthodox mission in their country. This proposal was put forward after Kirill Shrakbul, a priest and head of the ROC mission in Taiwan, had visited Papua New Guinea.

The priest described the visit as the most successful of his missionary trips. During meetings with local residents, about a thousand Papuans declared their readiness to convert to Orthodoxy. Kirill Shrakbul told the Russkiy Mir about his trip, prospects for the Orthodox mission in Papua New Guinea and development of Orthodoxy in Southeast Asia.

"We were waiting for you"

Please tell us about your trip to Papua New Guinea

The trip took place in January and February this year and was very successful. In 2013 we established an efficient mission in the Philippines; now there are many parishes and priests working there. That experience showed us that the same success can be achieved in other countries where they know nothing about Orthodoxy. Then there was East Timor, where we also managed to establish a parish. So gradually we turned our eyes to Papua New Guinea, where, according to priests and tourists I spoke to, there is nothing Orthodox. So I got a desire to go there

How do you start such huge and complex missions? You go to a square…

It is literally so. After landing at the airport, I went to a hotel. Having left my things at the hotel, I went for a walk. I was told where a lot of people crowded together. I came to a square and saw a sectarian who was emotionally pontificating something about his sect through a loudspeaker. Many people gathered around boxing him in. It was an unusual scene, and I decided to record it. As soon as I turned the phone camera on, listeners felt indignant about the recording and showered insults. As a result, the whole square’s attention was drawn to me who is that man in a cassock? I carefully walked towards the shopping arcade, and about 50 curious people followed me. I went out on the other side, and people started asking questions - who was I and why did I come? I started talking about the purpose of my mission, and immediately several people from the crowd said: “We want to follow you, what should we do?” And all the days that I was there, they were by my side.

It is very similar to stories about missionaries in ancient times or the Middle Ages...

You know, I felt that I came there at the right moment when the need for an Orthodox mission had matured in that land. And people accepted it; some of them said: We were waiting for you, and you have finally arrived. Subsequently everything also went well - my new acquaintances invited their relatives, assisted me in communicating my words to their compatriots in a more understandable terms, translated texts of prayers and brochures. Some of local preachers showed some interest in Orthodoxy.

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What prospects do you see there?

Papua New Guinea has been included into the ROC exarchate in Southeast Asia. This gives us great prospects. Local realities show us that the country's population has not yet rooted in any other confessions. Europeans came here relatively recently, at the end of the 19th century. Currently, you can mostly see various sects, Protestants and pseudo-Protestants, as well as Catholics working there. A small part of the population practices ancient beliefs. Those who chose Christianity are still very immature, they do not have an age-old tradition, and we can say that these people are still searching. Large-scale conversion of people is possible there. During our first trip, we came to one tribe that unites several villages. The entire local population expressed the desire to convert to Orthodoxy, because they were disillusioned with Catholicism. This never happened in my life before. Prospects for a mission in Papua New Guinea are immense; it simply needs to be accomplished. The people who live there are curious and thinking. Material things (to eat tasty food, to live in comfort) have not yet become their top concern. They are searching in religious sense. Abundance of various sects and groups that harshly criticize each other has caused the country residents to lose faith and feel religious thirst.

Do they remember Miklouho-Maclay who visited Papua New Guinea?

Yes, they know and feel good about him. The Russian Center was established in Papua New Guinea shortly before my arrival. It carries out active work. Before leaving, I contacted the Centers founder. He is a descendant and full namesake of Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay, the explorer, and he helped a lot.

Trilingual parish

Please tell us about Orthodox parishes in Taiwan.

The main parish of the Russian Orthodox Church in Taiwan is located in Taipei, the countrys capital, and there are also parish communities in three other cities. We may establish a community in one more city in the near future. We have complete temple premises in Taipei and Hsinchu; as the other two cities, we simply use alternative rooms for services. We have temple singers and volunteers to help us in Taipei. The staff count is rather small; basically our main support comes through active parishioners. Apart from conducting services, we translate liturgical and other Orthodox texts, have missionary trips throughout Taiwan. We are located in the center of Taipei renting premises in a large building. There has never been a permanent temple in Taiwan. So currently we are negotiating with the mayor's office to allocate us land for the temple construction. But so far this is still only a project.

What is the history of Orthodoxy in Taiwan?

It was brought here by the Orthodox Japanese in 1895, when Taiwan came under Japanese administration for 50 years based on a peace treaty with China. Japan sent many educated representatives and experts in various fields here. Some of them were Orthodox, because there was a strong Orthodox seminary in Tokyo back then. They requested a priest to be sent to Taiwan, and St. Nicholas of Japan sent Father Simeon here in 1901. Father Simeon established the first Orthodox parish, and our parish is the reconstruction of his.

Apart from you, are there any Russian-speaking Orthodox priests serving in Taiwan?

Unfortunately, there are not. Speaking of the parish in Taipei, it is a mixed one: a third of it is represented by Russian-speaking parishioners from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Georgia. Another two thirds are represented by English-speaking (mainly Americans) and local parishioners respectively. We have a trilingual parish, so we serve in Russian, English and Chinese. As for the other cities of Taiwan, our parishioners are mostly Russian-speaking.

Why do Taiwanese convert to Orthodoxy?

There are different stories, including unusual ones. One of our parishioners was at home and typed the hieroglyph that means "east" in the browser. The search engine showed information about the Eastern Orthodox Church. He became interested and began to read information. Then he found out that there is an Orthodox church in Taiwan, came to us and converted to Orthodoxy. There are those who are interested in Russia and study Russian, so they come to Orthodoxy through their interest in Russia. There are also those who are married to Orthodox Christians, and they also become our parishioners. We give lectures at local universities, sometimes students come to us after them. There are two Taiwanese who used to be Protestants, but then they studied history and became aware that Protestantism had been originated from Catholicism. Going further, they learned that Catholics had descended from Orthodox Christians. Now they are preparing to convert to Orthodoxy.

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Becoming a priest after a business school

Is it obligatory to study Russian for those who wish to connect life with Orthodoxy?

No, it is not. As I said, services are conducted in three languages. When we translated the text of the liturgy, our intention was for it to be as correct as possible and flow well. People who have a deep affinity for Orthodoxy decide to study Russian in order to read theological books. That is, there are those among our parishioners who came to Orthodoxy after studying Russian language, but there are also many counter examples.

You said that you translate church texts into Chinese. Are there any difficulties in finding words and concepts equivalent to Old Church Slavonic?

Of course, this is a very challenging job. Comparing to Chinese, all European languages, including Russian, English, Greek and Latin seem to be dialects of the same language. Chinese is very different from Indo-European languages, in particular Slavic. There are issues with grammar, some structures are impossible to translate. There are also difficulties with terminology. One woman attended our classes for a year and constantly asked what sin was. There is no even the simplest concept of sin in Chinese. They have a similar word that means something like "criminal offence." The woman was puzzled - does it mean that only criminals sin? I tried to explain, but it is not easy when this concept was not instilled since childhood.

Church texts have such words and concepts everywhere; sometimes we try to invent new words as Chinese language is flexible. New words understandable to a native speaker can be invented by combining various hieroglyphs.

How do people on Taipei streets react to you wearing robes? Or have they already got used to it?

Only neighbors have, and the population in the city is rather large. People look; I catch their surprised and curious glances. Sometimes they come up, ask questions, and start a conversation. Taiwanese are introverts by nature; they are somewhat reserved people.

How is Taiwan coping with the coronavirus pandemic?

Everything is fine in Taiwan, there were some cases at the very beginning, but the pandemic was quickly suppressed. We did not have lockdown here, only a few restaurants and hotels were affected. All the institutions, such as schools, factories, shops and temples, including ours, operated. Most of the parishioners came as before. Maybe 1 or 2 persons stopped visiting the temple on regular basis due to the coronavirus. However, the pandemic prevented us from visiting missions in other countries. For example, I planned to go to Papua New Guinea again after Easter, but the trip was cancelled. There were also some positive points attributable to the coronavirus - I have made three YouTube channels. Maybe, if it was not for the pandemic I wouldn't have done it so quickly.

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