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Monday, 7 January, 2002, 01:30 GMT
Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas
Orthodox priests hold a service in front of the St Clements cathedral in the Macedonian capital
Many orthodox countries place Christmas on 7 January
Orthodox Christians around the world are celebrating Christmas, but in Bethlehem, which tradition holds as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, the festival has been a muted affair.

Even though President Arafat is not here, he is present in our hearts and we hail his courage in working for a Palestinian state

Coptic Patriarch Abraham
Resisting international pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has continued to keep Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat under blockade in the West Bank city of Ramallah, unable to join Palestinian Christians for their celebration.

The rising tensions have had a devastating effect on Bethlehem, where the streets are usually filled with pilgrims, foreign tourists, flags and decorations at this time of year.

"There is no joy in Christmas this year," said 25-year-old Issam Juha, as he watched the procession of Greek, Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian patriarchs arrive in Manger Square before entering the Church of the Nativity for the service.

Orthodox virtues

While the Greek Orthodox Church marks Christmas on Sunday, Orthodox Christians in Russia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia and Macedonia celebrate on Monday - in accordance with the Julian calendar.

President Vladimir Putin lights a candle
Putin: Orthodoxy fosters patriotism
In Russia, where Christmas Day has only been a public holiday since the collapse of Communism a decade ago, Orthodox believers celebrated Christmas Eve in venues ranging from Moscow's vast new cathedral to a shell of a church in the war-torn capital of Chechnya.

The Christmas Eve service in Moscow's Christ the Saviour began at 2200 local time, and the city's metro laid on special trains to allow the many worshippers to return home late.

President Vladimir Putin extolled the virtues of the Church in a Christian message to the nation.

"Orthodoxy, which occupies a special place in Russian history, continues to play a paramount role in preserving the moral pillars," Mr Putin said. "It makes remarkable efforts to improve the spiritual health of our compatriots, foster patriotism, and strengthen civil peace and accord."

Meanwhile in Grozny, where separatist rebels continue to battle against Russian forces, a pensioner put together a make-shift service in what remains of a church, reading from a Psalter with the help of a torch.

Christmas killing

Celebrations also got off to a shaky start in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, currently under UN administration after the war of 1999.

Santa hands out gifts in Manger Square
The usual crowds were missing in Bethlehem's Manger Square
A 36-year-old Serb man was killed by a grenade that had been planted in his shop in the east of the province.

A wire had been placed in front of the back door of the shop, sending a blast through the building when the owner tripped as he entered.

Serbs have been the target of many attacks by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority since Nato bombing ended nearly three years ago, but the killing at Christmas has sparked particular outrage from local leaders.

The BBC's David Chazan
"For Orthodox Christians Christmas marks the beginning of the new year"
See also:

07 Jan 02 | Europe
24 Dec 01 | Middle East
28 Dec 01 | Middle East
07 Jan 01 | Europe
25 Dec 00 | Middle East
07 Jan 01 | Media reports
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