Page last updated at 13:48 GMT, Sunday, 19 April 2009 14:48 UK

Orthodox Christians mark Easter

Christian pilgrims hold candles at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
Some 40,000 pilgrims converged on Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Orthodox Christians have been marking Easter at celebrations throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Thousands of worshippers crowded into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Christianity's holiest shrine, for the Holy Fire Ritual.

Russian believers filled the cathedral in Moscow, where Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia presided for the first time since his enthronement.

Easter marks the holiest feast in the Christian calendar.

Greek Orthodox and other Eastern rite Christians mark Easter according to a different calendar from Protestants and Catholics.

This year the Orthodox Church celebrates Easter one week later, although the timing changes from year to year.

Ancient ceremony

Jerusalem's Old City was jammed with pilgrims from the eastern Orthodox faiths, which include Greeks, Copts, Russians and Assyrians.

Orthodox Easter liturgy in Belgrade, 19 April 2009

Some 10,000 worshippers crammed into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Saturday night for the Holy Fire ceremony.

Another 30,000 remained outside under tight security by Israeli police. Scuffles have broken out in previous years amid disagreements between the different Orthodox denominations which share responsibility for the church.

Christians believe the church is built on the place where Jesus was crucified and buried.

According to the ancient ritual, the Greek Orthodox patriarch in the Holy Land, currently Theofilos III, lights an oil lamp in the darkened church. The light from the holy fire is then shared by candles to the crowd.

The patriarch carried an ornate staff and wore a golden crown as chanting pilgrims and clergymen with candles joined in worship, reports said.

The flame from Jerusalem is also passed to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ, and aboard special flights to Athens and other cities.

It was passed as far afield as Russia, where the Patriarch Kirill was the first to light his candle from it at the cathedral in Moscow.

The service was attended by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife Svetlana, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and several other officials.

Georgia 'battle'


Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili joined worshippers to celebrate Easter

In neighbouring Georgia, President Mikhail Saakashvili attended an Easter service in the Tbilisi Central Trinity cathedral with his wife and two sons.

Mr Saakashvili has been facing opposition calls for him to step down for the past week.

Dmitry Medvedev, center, his wife Svetlana, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow
Russian leaders visited Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral

Protesters have taken a short break for the Easter festivities, but opposition leaders have vowed to launch the "final stage of the battle" after the holidays.

"It is a great celebration for the entire Orthodox world," President Saakashvili said in the cathedral. "Georgia, as one of the most ancient Christian nations, is celebrating it and we are sharing it with all the Orthodox Christians worldwide."

In the Egyptian capital Cairo, Pope Shenouda III celebrated Mass for members of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.

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In pictures: Orthodox Christian Easter
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