MOSCOW -- Orthodox Christians in Russia, Serbia and other countries observed Christmas on Friday amid restrictions aimed at dampening the spread of the coronavirus, but few worshipers appeared concerned as they streamed into churches on Christmas Eve.
The majority of Orthodox believers celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, with midnight services especially popular. The churches in Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Greece mark the Nativity of Jesus on Dec. 25 along with other Christian denominations.
The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox congregation, said celebrants needed to wear masks and observe social distancing at Christmas services. At Moscow's huge Christ The Savior Cathedral, church leader Patriarch Kirill and other gold-robed priests chanted prayers and waved smoking containers of incense during a midnight service.
A live broadcast of the service indicated about half of the worshippers in attendance were without masks or had them pulled down to their chins as they watched the pageantry.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, also without a mask, attended a service at the Church of the Image of the Saviour Made Without Hands in Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow.
Russia's daily tally of new COVID-19 cases has dropped by about half in the last month, to about 15,000 on Thursday. But concern is strong that the highly contagious omicron variant may be getting a foothold in the country.
Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said Thursday that officials have detected omicron infections in people who had not traveled outside Russia.
In Serbia's capital, Belgrade, hundreds of worshipers gathered outside St. Sava Temple, the largest Serbian Orthodox church, for the traditional burning of dried oak branches that symbolize the Yule log. The church also scheduled a midnight Christmas Eve liturgy.
No specific anti-virus measures were announced for Serbia's religious ceremonies despite a huge rise in infections apparently fueled by the omicron variant. Serbia on Thursday reported more than 9,000 new daily cases, the most in one day since the start of the pandemic.
Health measures in Serbia include mandatory face mask use indoors and and limits on gatherings, but the rules have not been fully respected. Vaccination passes are required for bars, restaurants and clubs in the evening but not for churches or other indoor venues.
In his Christmas message, Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Porfirije singled out medical personnel for their work during the public health crisis and said, “I pray for the sick to get well as soon as possible and for the disease that has attacked the world to pass.”
“The Church therefore calls during the pandemic for the respect of reasonable measures and recommendations of governments and other authorities in the states and regions in which our people live, but also reminds everyone to avoid exclusion and for respect of human freedom as the highest and most valuable God’s gift to men,” Porfirije added.
In Kazakhstan, the sizable Orthodox community could not observe Christmas in churches. All religious services were canceled under a nationwide state of emergency imposed after violent clashes between protesters and police in several cities. About 20% of the people in the predominantly Muslim country identify as Orthodox.
Associated Press writer Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.