A branch of Ukraine’s Orthodox church has announced that it will allow its churches to celebrate Christmas on December 25, rather than January 7, as is traditional in Orthodox congregations.
The announcement by the Kyiv-headquartered Orthodox Church of Ukraine widens the rift between the Russian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox believers that has deepened due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The decision came after “taking into account the numerous requests and taking into account the discussion that has been going on for many years in the Church and in society; predicting, in particular due to the circumstances of the war, the escalation of calendar disputes in the public space,” the Orthodox Church of Ukraine said in a statement published October 18.
Each church will have the option to celebrate on December 25, which marks the birth of Jesus according to the Gregorian calendar, rather than January 7, which marks the birth of Jesus according to the Julian calendar, still used by the Russian Orthodox Church.
In recent years a large part of the Orthodox community in Ukraine has moved away from Moscow, a movement accelerated by the conflict Russia stoked in eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014.
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That schism became more open in 2018, after Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople – a Greek cleric who is considered the spiritual leader of Orthodox believers worldwide – endorsed the establishment of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine and revoked a centuries-old agreement that granted the Patriarch in Moscow authority over churches in the country.
The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has become closely entwined with the Russian state under Russian President Vladimir Putin, responded by cutting ties with Bartholomew.
Then in May the leaders of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), another branch which had been formally subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, broke ties with the Moscow church, which is led by Patriarch Kirill, who has given his support to the invasion of Ukraine and has put his church firmly behind Putin.
In a statement, the UOC said it had opted for the “full independence and autonomy” of the Ukrainian church.
The emergence of a church independent of Moscow has infuriated Putin, who has made restoration of the so-called “Russian world” a centerpiece of his foreign policy and has dismissed Ukrainian national identity as illegitimate.
And Kirill remains outspoken in his support of the invasion, announcing in September that Russian soldiers who die in the war against Ukraine will be cleansed of all their sins.
“He is sacrificing himself for others,” he said. “I am sure that such a sacrifice washes away all sins that a person has committed.”