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What is Orthodox Christmas and what role does it play in the war in Ukraine?

(CNN) — For much of the Western world, Christmas is celebrated on December 25, according to the Gregorian calendar. However, Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar and celebrate the holiday on January 7.

This year, Orthodox Christmas, and longstanding rifts between the Russian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox groups, is in the spotlight over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call for a 36-hour temporary ceasefire in Ukraine. to allow Orthodox followers to attend Christmas services.

orthodox christmas

A girl lights a candle before the start of Orthodox Christmas at St. Michael’s Monastery in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. Credit: Bela Szandelszky/AP

Putin’s proposal was quickly dismissed as “hypocrisy” and “propaganda” by the Ukrainian authorities, and shelling has continued on both sides.

It is estimated that there are between 200 and 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world. Majority Orthodox countries include Russia, Ukraine and Greece, whose churches are part of the Eastern Orthodox branch, which is also followed by the majority of Christians in the Middle East. There are also significant Orthodox communities in Egypt and Ethiopia, most of which belong to the smaller Eastern Orthodox branch.

Before Russia’s war on Ukraine, Kyiv had been pushing to establish its own independent Orthodox Church from Moscow, and the schism only grew after Putin’s invasion last year. In October, a branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church announced that it would allow its churches to celebrate Christmas on December 25, instead of January 7.

Since Orthodox Christmas falls on a Saturday, here are the answers to some of the key questions.

Why do Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7?

The dispute within the Christian faith over when to officially recognize the birth of Jesus Christ goes back centuries.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decided to standardize the Christian holidays with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, which placed the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25. The Orthodox Church split into its own branch of Christianity during the Great Schism of 1054, after years of rising tensions over religious and political differences.

As a result, Orthodox Christians decided not to adopt Pope Gregory’s new calendar and continued to adhere to the Julian calendar.

orthodox christmas

Youngsters hold a diorama of the Birth of Christ during a religious service to celebrate Orthodox Christmas at St. Clement’s Cathedral in Skopje on January 6. Credit: Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images

Rupture between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches

In recent years, much of the Ukrainian Orthodox community has tried to distance itself from Moscow.

The movement was accelerated by the conflict that Russia stoked in eastern Ukraine starting in 2014 and became even stronger in 2018, after Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, a Greek cleric who is considered the spiritual leader of Orthodox believers Easterners around the world, backed the establishment of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and revoked a centuries-old agreement giving the patriarch in Moscow authority over the country’s churches.

In January 2019, Bartholomew signed a decree called “tomes” officially granting independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This broke the centuries-old ties of the church with the Russian church.

Patriarch Cyril of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, closely linked to the Russian state under Putin, responded by cutting ties with Bartholomew. The emergence of a church independent of Moscow has infuriated Putin, who has made the restoration of the so-called “Russian world” a centerpiece of his foreign policy and has branded Ukraine’s national identity as illegitimate.

Russia’s war in Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has exacerbated the division between the Orthodox churches of both countries and highlighted fundamental ideological differences.

In May 2022, a branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) that had remained loyal to Moscow after the 2019 split announced that it would break with the Russian Church over the invasion of Ukraine.

orthodox christmas ukraine

People dressed in traditional Ukrainian costumes sing Christmas carols in Lviv, western Ukraine. Credit: Les Kasyanov/Global Images Ukraine/Getty Images

Leaders of the branch, known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, severed ties with Moscow after Patriarch Cyril endorsed the war and gave the church’s strong support to Putin. Even before the decision of May 27, 2022, more than 400 parishes had already left the UOC-Moscow Patriarchate after the invasion.

Cyril continues to openly support the Russian invasion, announcing in a September 2022 sermon that Russian soldiers killed in the war against Ukraine will be cleansed of all their sins. “They are sacrificing for others,” he said. “I am sure that such a sacrifice washes away all the sins that a person has committed.”

Kyiv rejects the “hypocrisy” of the Christmas ceasefire

On Thursday, Putin gave a surprise order to his defense minister to apply a temporary ceasefire in Ukraine for 36 hours. The president’s order came after Cyril called for a ceasefire between January 6 and 7 to celebrate Orthodox Christmas.

The announcement was met with great skepticism by the Ukrainian side and immediately dismissed by Kyiv.

During his late-night speech on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia intended to use Orthodox Christmas “as a cover” to resupply its forces and halt Ukrainian advances in the eastern Donbas region.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak responded to Putin’s move by saying that Russia must leave the “occupied territories” in Ukraine before any “temporary truce.”

“Save the hypocrisy,” Podolyak tweeted. The adviser later described Putin’s order as “purely propaganda”, adding: “There is not the slightest desire to end the war. Above all, let me remind you, only Russia attacks civilian targets with missiles/drones, including places of religious worship, and it does so precisely at Christmas time”.

The proposal for a temporary truce also caused rejection among the international community.

US President Joe Biden expressed skepticism on Thursday, telling reporters he was “reluctant to respond to anything Putin says. I found it interesting. He was ready to bomb hospitals, day care centers and churches on the 25th and on New Year”.

The conflict in Ukraine continued on Friday after the proposed ceasefire start time of noon Moscow time (4 am ET) as CNN crews watched incoming and outgoing artillery fire around Bakhmut in the east. from Ukraine.

— CNN’s Jack Guy and Olga Voitovych contributed to this report.

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