As the tug-of-war continues for Orthodox believers in Ukraine, the head of the Kyiv-based faithful church delivered the first ever Christmas sermon at the country’s most historically important monastery. Saturday’s liturgy marked a deeply symbolic moment, reflecting the deep fracture the Moscow-led church has traditionally observed at the holy site.

Amid growing mistrust among Ukrainians in that church, which is seen as loyal to the Kremlin, the Ukrainian government has begun cracking down It calls for actions to support the Russian effort – sanctioning clergy, arresting priests for treason and raiding monasteries.

The service comes as a unilateral 36-hour ceasefire announced by Russia – and never agreed to by Ukraine – failed to materialize over the Orthodox Christmas period. At least three civilians were killed and several others were injured in Friday’s attacks, according to the Ukrainian government.

Those attending a Christmas service at Kyiv’s Pechersky Lavra faced tight security checks. People had to show their passports and pass through metal detectors and bag scanners before entering the complex. The site, spread over a bluff overlooking the Dnieper River, houses 1,000-year-old catacombs containing relics of saints and is considered the cradle of Orthodoxy for both Russians and Ukrainians.

The sermon was delivered by the Kyiv-based leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphanius. The Pechersky Lavra site is owned by the Ukrainian government, which allowed the Kyiv-led church to hold services in the cathedral instead of the Moscow-led church.

Since the Russian invasion, the position of the Moscow-led Orthodox Church has waned in Ukraine, and the conflict has led to a deep mistrust of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had long been the dominant spiritual force. Since the beginning of the war there has been debate over whether or not to ban the Moscow-led church from Ukraine entirely, and many churches have switched allegiance to the Kyiv-led patriarchate.

A separate and independent branch of Eastern Orthodoxy was revived in Ukraine 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 – gave the independent church, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, legitimacy, a move that angered Russian leaders.

The symbolism of Saturday’s service – the first held by the Ukraine-led church on Orthodox Christmas at the Pechersky Lavra – resonated with many in Kyiv. Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar instead of the new Gregorian calendar and celebrate Christmas on 7 January.

Before the ceremony began, worshipers in the Golden Hall spontaneously broke into carols, the Ukrainian language echoing through the church. A large number of soldiers attended the service amid a large crowd gathered under ornate golden decorations inside the domed building.

Orthodox Christmas celebrations were also ongoing in Russia. President Vladimir V. Putin attended an all-night Christmas service at the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin, and issued a Christmas message to Russians on Saturday morning, noting the church’s role in “supporting the participants of the special military operation”. given.

Mr. Putin’s declaration of a ceasefire from Friday afternoon to midnight on Saturday, which by all accounts never happened, was framed as an attempt by his supporters to honor the Orthodox faith on the holiday, and, Analysts say, an attempt by the Russian leader to strengthen his image as a defender of the faith.

There was no sign of a ceasefire on Ukraine’s front line on Friday as a 36-hour window began. In the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which has been the scene of some of the most intense fighting in recent weeks, fighting continued unabated, and defense analysis indicated that battle level was unchanged. According to the head of the regional administration and the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office, two civilians were killed and 13 injured in residential areas from Friday to Saturday.

The Ukrainian side, which has never said it would observe a ceasefire, does not give up. On Saturday, the Russian-installed governor of the Crimean city of Sevastopol said a Ukrainian drone was shot down in the early hours of the morning after an apparent attempt to attack the port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Ukraine generally does not confirm attempted strikes 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 importance of the church service.

Nazar Papiuko, 22, came with his wife, Victoria Papiuko, 21. While the pair said they did not consider themselves particularly religious, they felt it was important for them to be involved in a culturally significant moment.

“This is such a big holiday for us,” Mr. Papiuko said. “But this moment is really a big day for all Ukrainians.”

Alina Hijne, 59, from the Kyiv region, accompanied her 13-year-old grandson Nazar Pachelinsky to the front of the line from her home at 5 a.m. to enter the holy site.

“We see it as our Ukrainian heritage coming back to us,” she said. “And it’s a very important event.”

Alexandra Mykolyshin Contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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