Archpriest Alexander Du Lifu

Last priest of the Chinese Orthodox Albasians
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Alexander Du Lifu, priest: born Beijing 17 January 1923; ordained priest 1950; died Beijing 16 December 2003.

Alexander Du Lifu was the last priest of a small group of Albasians, Chinese Orthodox who, according to tradition, are descendants of five Russian soldiers who survived a war between Russia and China in the 1680s. 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. One of the soldiers was named Dubinin, and Du is the Chinese version of the surname.

Du was born in 1923 on the territory of the Russian Orthodox Mission in Beijing, and his entire life was bound up with the Russian Orthodox Church - and later with the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church (the Chinese authorities forced it to gain independence from the Mother Church in 1957). He attended the mission's school and in 1950 was ordained priest by the head of the mission, Archbishop Victor Svyatin of Beijing and China, being later raised to archpriest. Du served in churches in Beijing before they were either closed or destroyed in 1966 as the Cultural Revolution was unleashed. After the break between Moscow and Beijing, many Chinese Orthodox were accused of being Russian spies, among them Du's cousin, who was arrested and killed in prison.

As late as 1966, the community still lived by the city's north-eastern 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. Du took the icons and continued to pray in secret at home, while assigned to work until his retirement in a plastics factory.

As conditions eased in the 1980s, though prevented from working openly or from serving because of the absence of churches, Du gave spiritual guidance to the Albasian faithful privately. From 1997, he participated regularly in services conducted by visiting priests in the Russian Embassy in Beijing, although Chinese citizens are normally barred from attending.

In 1998 and again in 2001, Russian Patriarch Alexy decorated Du in acknowledgement of his faithfulness to his vocation.

Father Du always longed for the day when the Orthodox Church could exist once more in China and repeatedly petitioned the authorities for permission to re-establish a parish in Beijing. But to the last, according to those who knew him, he lived in terror of the authorities.

Felix Corley