ATHENS, Greece (AP) — With “Holy Fire,” fireworks and solemn Masses, Orthodox Christians around the world celebrated Easter on Sunday, commemorating the day followers believe that Jesus was resurrected more than 2,000 years ago.
Roman Catholics and Protestants marked Easter in March, in accordance with the Gregorian calendar. Eastern Orthodox churches celebrated Easter this week, using the older Julian calendar.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attended an Easter midnight Mass in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the world’s largest Orthodox Church, officiated at the service, attended by some 5,000.
In Greece, the faithful attended Easter Mass holding candles lit with “Holy Fire” from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The “Holy Fire,” coming from the Edicule, the small chamber marking the site of Jesus’ tomb, is held by the faithful to miraculously light candles as a message to the faithful from heaven.
The fire was transferred to Greece by plane and, as custom dictates, welcomed at Athens airport with the honors due a visiting foreign head of state, before taken across the country by plane so it could reach the furthest parishes before midnight Sunday.
The “Holy Fire” was also transported to Russia and other Orthodox nations.
Fireworks are an essential part of the festivities, despite official disapproval from the Greek Orthodox Church. On the eastern Greek Aegean island of Chios, two parishes in the village of Vrontados stage a spectacular mock war with a hail of fireworks, drawing visitors from across the country.
Perhaps surprisingly, no one was injured in the barrage of fireworks aimed at each church’s towers in Chios, but a man was seriously injured in Crete after falling from a high pole while helping set up another tradition, the burning of a Judas effigy.
But not all was unified in the Orthodox world.
In Ukraine, the second largest Orthodox country, a recently agreed armistice between the government and Russian-backed separatists in the east was violated just as it was going into effect. One Ukrainian soldier was killed and several troops wounded, a government spokesman said, adding that separatists had shelled its positions overnight at several locations, including the suburbs of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.
And in the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, Christians are a minority with often difficult relations with the Muslim majority. Tensions, with often deadly consequences, are prevalent in Egypt.
Elsewhere in the region, the Islamic State has targeted Christians, as well as Muslims unwilling to follow its extreme interpretation of Islam, for prosecution.
“We lift up in prayer the members of the Orthodox community who have been persecuted for their faith and subjected to unspeakable acts of violence, and we seek the release of those who have been kidnapped,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement. “We remember those who have been driven from their homelands and who have seen their religious institutions desecrated or destroyed … (and we) pledge to continue our work to ensure that all people are able to live in peace, justice, and freedom.”
Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem, Brian Rohan in Cairo, and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.