01/07/2016, 00.00
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As St Petersburg’s cathedral reopens, Orthodox mark Christmas swimming in frigid waters and praying for migrants

For the first time since the Russian Revolution, St Isaac Cathedral in St Petersburg, the world’s largest Orthodox church, opens on Christmas Eve. In Istanbul, the faithful leap into the frigid waters of the Golden Horn to retrieve a wooden cross thrown by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. In Moscow Kirill calls for peace in Ukraine, whilst in Greece people pray for the victims of human trafficking.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Today, some 230 million Orthodox celebrated Christmas around the world swimming in frigid waters, praying for the victims of human trafficking and pleading for peace in the world’s hotspots.

Pope Francis had already began the celebrations in yesterday’s Angelus for the day of Epiphany, by expressing his "spiritual closeness to the brothers and sisters of the Christian East, Catholic and Orthodox, many of whom will celebrate the Lord's birth tomorrow. To them, we extend our best wishes for peace and good tidings!”

By far, the most impressive celebrations were held in Russia, homeland of the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox community in the world, which currently has more than 30,000 churches and 800 monasteries in almost 70 countries.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia led the Christmas Eve liturgy at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. For the first time ever, the service was held with open Holy Doors to symbolise the openness of God’s word for all.

In his message, the Patriarch called on the faithful to pray for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. "The fratricidal conflict which has arisen in the land of Ukraine should never divide the Church’s children by sowing enmity within peoples’ hearts," he said.

Christmas Eve celebrations were also held in St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg, the largest Orthodox church in the world.

The landmark 19th Century cathedral was turned into a museum under the officially atheist Soviet regime. After the USSR’s collapse in 1991, it remained a museum, but the Russian Orthodox Church has used it periodically for services. However, yesterday’s was the biggest ever.

In Turkey, the faithful met in Istanbul’s Fanar district, see of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, for a service led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.

Renewing with an ancient tradition, a group of faithful leaped into the frigid waters of the Golden Horn to retrieve a wooden cross thrown by Bartholomew. Nicolaos Silos (pictured), a 28-year-old visitor from Greece, was the first to reach it.

In the latter’s home country, a ceremony was held on the island of Lesbos, the gateway to Europe for many immigrants and refugees, to remember all those who died making the crossing from Turkey.

A floral wreath in the shape of the peace sign was thrown into the sea. The president of the Refugee Club in Lesbos, Makis Venetas, says it honours drowned refugees.

"We honour the memory of the small refugee children that have drowned. They're not to blame, no matter if they're Orthodox, Muslim or Catholic. They're small children that drowned in the Aegean Sea, and that's really shocking to us."

In Egypt, police deployed scores of agents around Cairo’s Coptic churches against possible terrorist threats.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited some places of worship and promised to fix all Coptic churches damaged in sectarian violence that followed the ouster of his predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013.

As per tradition, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III celebrated Christmas Mass in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, welcomed by hundreds of worshippers in Manger Square.

In his address, the patriarch called on them to "live and work for the peace of the Lord."

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