Orthodox Christmas Conflicts and celebrations
Brian J Požun

On 7 January, Orthodox Christians in Central and Eastern Europe and throughout the world celebrated Christmas. Christians of the Russian and Serbian Churches as well as the monks of Mount Athos in Greece celebrate Christmas according to the old Julian calendar. Other Churches, including those of Greece and Bulgaria, have switched to the Gregorian calendar and celebrate the holiday 13 days earlier, on 25 December.

This year's celebrations were muted in many places by conflicts, both open and simmering.

There were crowds in the Chechen capital of Grozny, however Orthodox Christmas was observed in the city's near-ruined church. Hundreds of people crowded into the church, which was decorated with fir trees from Northern Russia. Fireworks were set off in the evening, and despite the ever-tense atmosphere there, the holiday passed peacefully.

The situation was drastically different elsewhere. In Slovenia, thousands of Orthodox Christians attended Christmas liturgy at Ljubljana's Cathedral of SS Cyril and Methodius. In the Czech Republic, the holiday was also peacefully observed. There are several Orthodox churches in the country, including the Cathedral of SS Cyril and Methodius in Prague and the Cathedral of St Vaclav in Brno.

Estonia: rocky start to the holiday season

The Christmas season in the region got off to a rocky start when the leaders of 15 of the 16 Eastern Orthodox Churches met on 24 December at the headquarters of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul. The only one who did not attend was the Russian Patriarch, Aleksej II.

The Russian Orthodox Church—the world's largest—has been feuding with the Ecumenical Patriarch, the largely-ceremonial head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, throughout the 1990s over jurisdictional claims to the thousands of Orthodox Christians in the former republics of the Soviet Union. The situation has been aggravated in the last several years by events in Estonia.

Hedging a schism between the two Churches that reached its boiling point in 1996, the Moscow Patriarchate reached an agreement with the Ecumenical Patriarch whereby individual parishes in Estonia could choose whether they would answer to the hierarchy of Moscow or Constantinople.

Estonia is home to about 50,000 Orthodox Christians—of these about 30,000 are ethnic Russians.

Moscow viewed a visit by Bartholomew to Estonia in October as a breach of the agreement, and the dispute flared up once again, causing in Aleksej II to boycott the 24 December meeting.

Russia: German leader sees religious revival firsthand

In Moscow, Aleksej II celebrated the Christmas liturgy at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Interfax's Russian news bureau reported that more than 700,000 attended Christmas services on 6 and 7 January. The large turnout offered further evidence of a religious revival that has been going on for almost a decade within Russia.

The research group Monitoring.ru released statistics late last week showing that 55 percent of Russians believe in God, while only 33 percent do not. Of those who believe, 91 percent said they are Orthodox Christians. The Moscow Times also reported that 62 percent of Russians throughout the country intended to celebrate Christmas. While this figure is down from 67 percent last year, it is still substantially higher than the 57 percent recorded in 1998.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his wife made a personal visit to the Russian capital to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin for the holiday. Together with their wives, they attended the Christmas services at the Christ the Savior Cathedral. Despite the personal nature of the trip, the two heads of state nevertheless found time to discuss Russian-German relations.

Putin, Schröder and their wives all met with Patriarch Aleksej II at the Holy Trinity-St Serguis Monastery in Sergiev Posad, near Moscow, on Christmas day. Afterwards, the Patriarch told Interfax that the meeting was "very useful," and that Schröder will return to Germany with "a completely new vision of the Russian people, who have revived their spirituality and tradition in this complex time."

Ukraine and Belarus: cultural revival

In Ukraine, numerous traditions dating back to the pagan era, all but extinguished under Communist rule, continue to re-emerge from the shadows. The Kyiv City Council was among the most prominent of those who embraced the old customs, sponsoring a celebration in downtown Kyiv replete with kolyady (caroling) and a vertep (nativity reenactment).

Groups of youths also returned to the old tradition of going door-to-door caroling. The tradition was very strong throughout the old Russian Empire. Beneath the surface, however, all was not well. On 9 January the Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv patriarchate) was held in Kyiv. The council reiterated earlier calls for the creation of a unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and asked the government and the Ecumenical Patriarch for their assistance.

There are three Orthodox hierarchies in Ukraine. The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church remains strong, though is without the support of the government. The other two, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv patriarchate), and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, enjoy the patronage of the government, which hopes to unite them into a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church for the country.

In Miensk, Christmas Day was made all the more festive by President Aliaksandar Lukašenka bestowing the Award For Spiritual Renewal and the special Award of the President of Belarus on several major figures from the Belarusian cultural world. Awards went to an architect, a monk, a linguist, a playwright, a choreographer, two folk dance troupes and many others. Filaret, Metropolitan of Miensk and Sluzk and head of the Russian Orthodox Exarchate in Belarus, participated in the ceremony.

Later that evening, Lukašenka attended the Christmas liturgy conducted by Metropolitan Filaret at the Miensk Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. The Belarusian State Committee on Affairs of Religions and Nationalities reports that more than 80 percent of believers in Belarus intended to celebrate Christmas this year.

Serbia: Spirit of cooperation and renewal

Pavle, Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, celebrated Christmas liturgy at Belgrade's largest cathedral, St Sava. Many thousands of people crowded churches in Belgrade and across Serbia for holiday services. In tumultuous Southern Serbia, the Christmas celebrations went on peacefully despite the tense situation between Serbs and Albanians in that region.

In his Christmas missive, Patriarch Pavle said that the twentieth century was a time of "tears, destruction and hate," but that the beginning of the new millennium offered a chance for "rebuilding, happiness and love." The Patriarch also stressed the importance of helping one's brothers in hard times.

The Patriarch, however, did not mention any of the other various and complicated problems facing his Church. Among the foremost were those relating to the breakaway Montenegrin and Macedonian Orthodox Churches, and the disputes within the Serbian Orthodox Church in Italy. These issues came to a head, however, in the affected regions over the Christmas holiday.

Montenegro: A broken home

The Christmas season in Montenegro was marked by a boiling feud. The Church in Montenegro has been split between the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the breakaway Montenegrin Autocephalous Church since the latter's creation in 1993. With the recent increase in tensions between Belgrade and Podgorica, the problem has escalated.

In Cetinje, the spiritual center of Montenegro and its medieval capital, the Montenegrin Church has about 30 churches under its jurisdiction. The Serbian Church holds only 11 churches there. The Montenegrin Church has considerably more adherents throughout the region, but the Serbian Church maintains strongholds in the cities, such as Kotor, Nikšić and Herceg-Novi.

For the holiday, the Metropolitanate banned state media, including the major daily Pobjeda and RTV Montenegro, from covering its Christmas observances, accusing them of sympathizing with the cause of the Montenegrin Autocephalous Church. Pobjeda nevertheless did run fairly impartial coverage of both churches.

During the Christmas celebrations, Metropolitan Amfilohije, head of the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral, conducted liturgy at a monastery near Cetinje. Yugoslav Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić was among the roughly 1000 in attendance.

Despite several public denouncements of the Montenegrin Church and demands that the government put a stop to its activities, Amfilohije's Christmas missive curiously made no reference to the issue.

The supporters of the Montenegrin Autocephalous Church gathered only a few dozen meters away, at the Court of King Nikola. The service was conducted by Metropolitan Mihajlo, who was joined by Bulgarian Metropolitan Jakov and more than ten thousand believers, demonstrating the numerical superiority of the Montenegrin Church.

In his Christmas missive, Metropolitan Mihajlo addressed the issues directly. "Let us pray for a solution for Montenegro and for the forgiveness of those who desire the elimination of Montenegro and the Montenegrins," he told his followers.

Despite the tension and the close quarters, both of the services, along with the traditional firing of guns afterwards, went off without incident. Hundreds of police officers were sent in to maintain order in the area by the Ministry of the Interior.

The Christmas greeting of Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović addressed the need to heal the region's deep divisions. He called on all politicians and spiritual leaders to lead the healing process.

"Unity, mutual respect and understanding, respect for ethnic differences and human rights opens the way to new freedoms, leads us to achievements for our civilization and are forebearers of the brightest future of Montenegro at the beginning of the new millennium," he stated.

Like last year, Đukanović made official greetings to both the leader of the Serbian Church as well as the Montenegrin one.

Macedonia: at long last, a resolution?

Archbishop Stefan of the disputed Macedonian Orthodox Church celebrated Christmas liturgy in the capital, Skopje, at the Cathedral of St Kliment of Ohrid.

The Serbian Orthodox Church still maintains that clerics in Macedonia are under the authority of the Serbian Patriarch, though there has been a separate Macedonian hierarchy since 1967. Independence was not done according to Orthodox protocol, however, and the Church remains unrecognized by the rest of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

When Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, the movement for an independent Macedonian Orthodox Church got a major shot in the arm, and today the Church is striving to make itself a proper, canonical Orthodox Church independent of the Serbian Patriarchate.

In January 2000, President of the Government of Macedonia, Ljubcho Georgievski, took the major step of asking the Ecumenical Patriarch for his assistance in establishing the Macedonian Orthodox Church on the firm foundation of Church canons. Georgievski also asked that the Macedonian Church be made autocephalous and put under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

The dispute has been simmering for years, but a resolution could be on the horizon. On 16 and 17 January, representatives of the Serbian and Macedonian Churches will meet to discuss the Macedonian claims to independence. This will be the third such meeting, after the previous two, held last year, failed to produce an agreement.

Italy: more problems

In Trieste (Trst), about six thousand Serbs are registered. In reality, there are more than 15,000, making the Adriatic city home to one of the largest Orthodox populations in Western Europe.

Metropolitan Jovan is the spiritual leader of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Trieste, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, however it was unclear if he would serve Christmas liturgy at Trieste's Cathedral of St Spiriodion due to a smouldering conflict among the local Church leadership.

A major conflict between the Church, led by Metropolitan Jovan, and Dušan Šajin, of the Council of Orthodox Groups in Trieste has been brewing for some time. At stake is control of the material wealth of the Council of Orthodox Groups. The Metropolitan excommunicated Šajin and the members of the Council for not respecting the Church's authority.

The fractured Orthodox world

Overall, the holiday season passed peacefully throughout the region. Despite the jurisdictional conflicts tearing apart the Russian and Serbian Orthodox Churches in many countries and regions, there were no major acts of violence reported.

The peaceful atmosphere in Slovenia and the Czech Republic was virtually recreated in such war-torn places as Palestine, Chechnya and Southern Serbia, even if only for a single day.

The New Year and the new millennium offer the Orthodox Church a chance for a fresh start. Nonetheless, a speedy resolution to the jurisdictional issues in Estonia, Ukraine, Montenegro and Macedonia (among many, many others worldwide) is the only chance for the Church to ensure that next Christmas, the holiday will pass in peace and stability, both for the national Churches and their respective nations.

Brian J Požun, 15 January 2001

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