Orthodox Christians packed churches Saturday night for Christmas Eve services, a holiday overshadowed for many believers by conflict.
Traditions vary, but typically the main worship service for Orthodox Christians takes place the night before Christmas, which is Jan. 7.
Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, the world’s largest Orthodox denomination, led elaborate and well-attended services at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. In ornately decorated vestments, dozens of priests and officiants took part, swinging smoking incense censers and chanting the liturgy.
In his Christmas message, broadcast just before the service Saturday night, Kirill spoke on the theme of sacrificial love, noting that Jesus Christ “saved us from the wrong path in life, from the wrong life orientation.” He also called for prayers for Russia, so that “no alien evil will could disrupt the peaceful flow of life.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin was joined by families of military personnel who have died in the war in Ukraine at Christmas Eve services at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence, in the western suburbs of Moscow.
In a statement congratulating Orthodox Christians, Putin highlighted the “efforts of religious organizations aimed at supporting our heroes — participants in the special military operation,” as the Kremlin refers to Russia’s efforts in Ukraine.
Officials said about a million people were expected to go to church in the Russian capital. But nighttime services were canceled in the Russian border city of Belgorod due to the “operational situation,” Mayor Valentin Demidov said.
Ukrainian attacks in Belgorod on Dec. 30 killed 25 people, officials there said, making it one of the deadliest strikes on Russian soil since the start of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine nearly 23 months ago. Rocket and drone attacks on the city continued throughout this week.
Russians and Orthodox in some other countries observe Christmas on Jan. 7.
But Ukraine, which is a predominantly Orthodox country, officially observed Christmas this year as a public holiday on Dec. 25. The change, enacted in legislation signed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in July, reflects Ukrainians’ dismay with the nearly 23-month-old Russian invasion and their assertion of a national identity.
In neighboring Belarus, Christmas is officially celebrated with public holidays on both Dec. 25 and on Jan. 7. About 80% of believers are Orthodox, belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church, while around 14% are Catholics, living mainly in the west, north and center of the country.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 30 years, calls himself an “Orthodox atheist.” He usually attends Christmas Eve services and lights a candle in an Orthodox church.
He wished Orthodox Christians a happy Christmas, saying in a statement that he is “convinced that by preserving the Orthodox traditions of mercy and moral purity, together we will create the best future for our native Belarus.”
Orthodox believers in Serbia marked the day by burning oak branches at services outside churches and temples, including hundreds who gathered at the St. Sava Temple — the biggest Orthodox church in the Balkans.
The young oak tree symbolizes Christ and his entry into the world, with the centuries-old tradition led by Serbian Orthodox church priests. As the fire was lit, dozens of people of all ages threw small branches of dried oak into the large bonfire.
“In these hard times, we need to come together in unity and to nurture peace, love, and respect towards each other,” Belgrade resident Mica Jovanovic told The Associated Press.
Celebrations in the Middle East were darkened by another conflict: the Israel-Hamas war.
In Bethlehem, where Orthodox Christmas Eve normally draws tens of thousands of tourists to visit the traditional birthplace of Jesus, roughly 100 observers milled about in Manger Square. They were nearly outnumbered by police officers and clergymen.
Christmas festivities were canceled in the West Bank town after the heads of major churches in Jerusalem asked their congregations to “forgo any unnecessarily festive activities” in light of the fighting in Gaza. The majority of Christians in the region are Palestinians, and Christian leaders have called upon observers to spend the holidays praying for peace and an end to the war.
Despite the cancellation of festivities, church leaders still gathered to welcome the arrival of patriarchs from different Orthodox churches — Greek, Coptic and Ethiopian — and a customary procession of Boy Scouts proceeded through Bethlehem, though without the usual fanfare. A midnight Mass was planned.
Samir Qumseyeh, a Palestinian Christian and founder of a Christian TV channel, has been filming the celebrations since 1996. He said this year’s observance was even more muted than at the height of the second intifada, when Israeli forces locked down parts of the West Bank in response to Palestinians carrying out suicide bombings and other attacks that killed Israeli civilians.
“Even during the intifada, still the festivals and the joy were there,” Qumseyeh said. “But this year, I am feeling very, very, very sad. But I understand why the church leaders had to do this. You cannot show joy when the people of Gaza are suffering.”
In Iraq, many Christians canceled Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, as well as in an act of continued mourning for the victims of a deadly fire that killed more than 100 people at a wedding in the predominantly Christian Hamdaniya area of northern Iraq in September.
Dozens of Iraqi Armenian Orthodox Christians attended Christmas Eve Mass in Baghdad but the celebration was limited to Christmas prayers and rituals.
“In 2023, we went through many crises, including the Hamdaniya tragedy which the entire world learned about, as well as to Gaza and our brothers in Palestine,” Gebre Kashikian, pastor of the Armenian Church in Baghdad, said at the Mass.
In Istanbul, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I presided over the Blessing of the Waters ceremony on the Golden Horn. The tradition sees the patriarch toss a wooden cross into the inlet, which this year nearly 50 swimmers competed to recover.
Kostas Kypros, from Alexandroupoli in Greece, emerged from the water clutching the crucifix. “I am very happy. I wish the best for everyone. I was lucky and I pulled out the cross,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported him as saying.
Earlier, members of Istanbul’s tiny Greek Orthodox community and visitors from neighboring Greece attended an Epiphany service led by Bartholomew I at the Patriarchal Church of St George in Istanbul’s Fener district.
Bartholomew I is regarded as the “first among equals” among patriarchs in Eastern Orthodoxy and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians. The patriarchate dates from the 1,100-year Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which ended in 1453 when the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, today’s Istanbul.