Chinese authorities, often seen as repressive toward Roman Catholics and Protestant Christians, are giving increasingly encouraging signals to the country's small Russian Orthodox community, according to unconfirmed reports.
After Russian President Vladmir Putins official visit to China last week, Beijing decided to allow 18 Chinese students to undertake studies in seminaries of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
"If they are allowed to fulfill their priesthoods in China by the Administration for Religious Affairs, one day they will become bishops and be able to ordain priests. Orthodoxy will thus return in China," a Russian businessman told AFP.
According to the news agency, Orthodox followers in China were for many years forced into hibernation partly because a lack of active priests.
In the mid-1950s, the Chinese Orthodox church reached its peak when it became autonomous and had two bishops who oversaw an estimated 20,000 faithful. However, the church later faced much suffering at the hands of the infamous Red Guard, which, under Mao Zedong, had ravaged China through a vicious campaign of murder and destruction, and drove the church underground in 1966.
The two bishops died in the 1960s and have never had any successors.
Since then, China's Orthodox community has steadily been diminishing, with many expecting it to disappear altogether after the death of the last active priest in December.
However, in an unexpected move last June, China permitted an Orthodox monk in Russia's Ural Mountains, to celebrate mass in northeastern Harbin, which is said to be China's most Russian-influenced city. The church has since remained opened, though the faithful have had to make do with services held by laymen since the death of their priest more than four years ago.
AFP reports that Orthodox followers in China hope they will soon be able to practice their faith normally as their priest-shortage comes to an end.