Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Russians Mark Orthodox Christmas
January 7, 2003

MOSCOW (AP) - Russian Orthodox believers braved bitter cold to celebrate Christmas on Tuesday, with more than 5,000 attending a nighttime service led by the church's Patriarch Alexy II at Moscow's largest cathedral.

Bells rang from thousands of churches - many built or restored since the collapse of the atheist Soviet regime - as clocks struck midnight Monday in the capital, where temperatures fell to 16 below zero. Subways, buses and trolleys ran an hour later than usual to accommodate churchgoers.

Christmas falls later for the Russian and most other Eastern Orthodox churches, which use the old Julian calendar, than for Protestant and Catholic churches that follow the 16th-century Gregorian calendar. Russian secular life goes by the Gregorian calendar.

For Alexy, who has been recovering after being hospitalized following an attack of hypertension in October, Tuesday's service at Christ the Savior Cathedral, which began late on Christmas Eve, marked a return to the public eye.

The cathedral beside the Moscow River near the Kremlin is a recent reconstruction of the original church, blown up on order of Stalin in 1931 and replaced by a swimming pool.

The new cathedral was consecrated in 2000 amid vastly improved relations between Russia's government and the dominant Russian Orthodox Church. In a Christmas message, Alexy celebrated those ties and called for them to be strengthened.

``The Church will always, as best it can, endeavor to establish accord among peoples and nations, encourage the authorities and society to peacefully resolve various conflicts, to build a dignified life...,'' Alexy said in the message posted on the church Web site.

``Herein lies the Church's partnership with the state and various secular organizations - a partnership which we are aiming for and which is already bringing tangible results,'' said Alexy, who received a Christmas greeting from President Vladimir Putin by phone Monday.

Putin attended Christmas Eve services at a two-year-old church in the village of Agapovka in Ural Mountains region of Chelyabinsk, some 850 miles east of Moscow. State television showed him lighting candles inside the light blue church topped by golden domes.

``This holiday invariably brings peace, love, goodwill and hope into the homes of millions of people,'' Putin said in a statement issued on Christmas Eve by the Kremlin press service.

Despite the church's revival, for most Russians the focus of the holiday season is New Year's, when people exchange gifts and celebrate with family and friends.

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