Ukrainians Celebrate Orthodox Christmas at a Holy Site Long Linked to Moscow

As the tug of war for the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine rages on, the head of the church that is loyal to Kyiv delivered a Christmas sermon for the first time at the country’s most historically significant monastery. The Mass on Saturday marked a deeply symbolic moment, showing the deep fracture with the separate Moscow-led church that traditionally celebrated at the holy site.

Amid growing distrust among Ukrainians in that church, which is seen as loyal to the Kremlin, the Ukrainian government has begun cracking down for actions it says support Russian efforts — sanctioning clergy, arresting priests for treason and raiding monasteries.

The service comes 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.

Those attending the Christmas service at Kyiv’s Pechersky Lavra encountered intense security checks. People had to show their passports and go through metal detectors and bag scanners before they could enter the premises. The sprawling site on a bluff overlooking the Dnipro River has 1,000-year-old catacombs that hold the remains of saints and is considered a cradle of Orthodoxy for both Russians and Ukrainians.

The sermon was delivered by the Kyiv-based leader of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Epiphanius. The Pechersky Lavra site 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.

Since the Russian invasion, the status of the Moscow-led Orthodox Church has diminished in Ukraine, and the conflict has spurred a deep mistrust of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had long been the dominant spiritual force. There has been debate since the start of the war about whether to ban the Moscow-led church entirely from Ukraine, and many churches have switched allegiances to the Kyiv-led patriarch.

Ukraine’s separate and independent branch of Eastern Orthodoxy was revived after the country gained independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. At the same time, another branch of Orthodoxy in Ukraine remained loyal to Moscow. In 2019, the Patriarchate of Constantinople — the senior authority in Eastern Orthodoxy — granted the independent church, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, legitimacy, a move that outraged Russian leaders.

The symbolism of Saturday’s service — the first held by the Ukrainian-led church on Orthodox Christmas at Pechersky Lavra — resonated with many in Kyiv. Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar rather than the newer Gregorian calendar and celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.

Before the ceremony began, worshipers spontaneously broke out in carols in the golden hall, the Ukrainian language echoing through the church. A number of soldiers attended the service, standing among the large crowd that gathered under the ornate golden decor inside of the domed building.

In Russia, Orthodox Christmas celebrations were also underway. President Vladimir V. Putin attended an overnight Christmas 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.”

Mr. Putin’s announcement of a pause in fighting from noon on Friday until midnight on 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.

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.

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 them to be involved in the culturally significant moment.

“This is such a big holiday for us,” Mr. 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.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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