KYIV, Ukraine — Worshippers gathered at Ukraine’s most historically significant monastery on Saturday to celebrate Orthodox Christmas in much the same way that they have for centuries.
Clergy dressed in silver robes chanted as they made their way through the ornate hall while families prayed alongside one another. Periodically, the congregation broke out in carols that echoed off the golden walls.
But there was a critical difference: For the first time, the sermon was delivered in the monastery’s main church by the head of the Kyiv-led Orthodox Church of Ukraine, a symbolic moment that highlighted the deep fracture within the Eastern Orthodox church in Ukraine.
The Moscow-led church that has long dominated religious life in much of Ukraine has traditionally held the Christmas Mass at the monastery, Pechersky Lavra. But that faction has been accused of supporting the Russian forces that have invaded Ukraine, acting as a fifth column for Moscow.
Mistrust of the Russian-led church has grown, and in recent months Ukrainian security services have begun raiding monasteries, including Pechersky Lavra, searching for Russian saboteurs and arresting priests for treason. There is a growing debate about whether to ban the Moscow-led church entirely from Ukraine, and many churches have switched their allegiance to the Ukrainian-led branch.
The Mass, delivered by the leader of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Epiphanius, was celebrated as a unilateral 36-hour cease-fire declared by Russia — and never agreed to by Ukraine — failed to materialize over the Orthodox Christmas period. At least three civilians were killed in attacks on Friday, according to the Ukrainian government, and several more were wounded.
On Saturday, women wearing floral headscarves, soldiers in uniform and young families began arriving early for the ceremony, just after 8 a.m. Those attending the Christmas service encountered intense security checks, with people showing their passports and going through metal detectors and bag scanners before they could enter the church.
Pechersky Lavra sprawls atop a bluff overlooking the Dnieper River. Considered a cradle of Orthodoxy for both Russians and Ukrainians, its 1,000-year-old catacombs hold the remains of revered saints. It is owned by the Ukrainian government, which gave the Kyiv-led church permission to conduct the service at the cathedral rather than the Moscow-led church.
In Russia, Orthodox Christmas celebrations were also underway. President Vladimir Putin attended an overnight service at the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin, and on Saturday morning issued a Christmas message to Russians, noting the role of the church in “supporting the participants of the special military operation” — his euphemism for the war in Ukraine.
Patriarch Kirill, head of the church in Moscow and a strong supporter of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, had earlier suggested a cease-fire for the Christmas holiday. On Saturday, he led a Christmas sermon in Moscow and issued a televised message to the members of the faith, offering prayers for those killed in the fighting.
Putin’s announcement of a pause in fighting from noon Friday until midnight Saturday, which by all accounts never happened, was framed by his supporters as an effort to respect the Orthodox faith on the holiday, and, analysts say, an attempt by the Russian leader to bolster his image as a protector of the faith.
On the Ukrainian front lines, there was no sign of a cease-fire on Friday as the 36-hour window began. In Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city that has been the scene of some of the most intense battles in recent weeks, the fighting continued unabated, and defense analysis indicated that the level of fighting was unchanged. Two civilians were killed and 13 wounded there overnight from Friday into Saturday when residential areas were hit, according to the head of the regional administration and the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine in a Friday night address, issued after the United States announced a new $3 billion package of military assistance for Ukraine that will include Bradley Fighting Vehicles, called recent diplomatic efforts a success and vowed to push for more military support from abroad.
“For Ukraine, there is more air defense, more armored vehicles, for the first time — Western tanks, more guns and rounds, more energy and political opportunities,” he said. “And all this means more protection for Ukrainians and all Europeans from any manifestations of Russian terror.”
The Ukrainian side, which never said it would observe the cease-fire, did not appear to be letting up. On Saturday, the Russian-installed governor of the Crimean city of Sevastopol said that a Ukrainian drone had been shot down there in the early hours of the morning, after an apparent attempt to attack the port where Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based. Ukraine does not typically confirm strike attempts in occupied Crimea.
But at the Kyiv monastery on Saturday, the fighting on Ukraine’s front line was far from the minds of many as they focused on the significance of the church service. A choir made up of young men and women wearing traditional Ukrainian dress that included elaborately beaded headpieces and long woolen socks from one of the country’s western regions sang during the ceremony.
As the church filled with worshippers, crowds gathered outside in the cold morning air and watched the ceremony on a large screen as a light snow fell.
Iryna Holovan, who lives in Kyiv, brought along her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Diana, who was bundled up tightly in a parka, with a pink snow hat and boots, because she felt the moment was “historic.”
Nazar Papiuko, 22, came with his wife, Viktoria Papiuko, 21. While the pair said they do not consider themselves to be particularly religious, they felt it was important to be involved in the culturally significant moment.
“This is such a big holiday for us,” Papiuko said. “But this moment is really just a big day for all Ukrainians.”
Alina Hizhe, 59, who is from the Kyiv region, left her house at 5 a.m. with her grandson Nazar Pchelinskyi, 13, to be at the front of the line to get into the holy site.
“We see it as having our Ukrainian heritage returned back to us,” she said. “And that is a very important event.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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