Little let-up in fighting as Ukraine, Russia mark Orthodox Christmas

Ukrainians and Russians on Saturday marked Orthodox Christmas under the shadow of war, as fighting persisted despite Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin unilaterally ordering his forces to pause attacks.

Despite Putin's ceasefire order war-scarred cities in eastern Ukraine saw no significant let-up in the fighting as AFP journalists in the town of Chasiv Yar south of the frontline city of Bakhmut heard heavy artillery fire throughout much of Saturday morning.

The Russian defence ministry insisted on Saturday the army was observing the ceasefire but also said that it had repelled the Kyiv forces' attacks in eastern Ukraine and killed dozens of soldiers on Friday.

Ukrainian authorities said that three people were killed on Friday.

In Moscow, 70-year-old Putin cut a lonely figure as he stood by himself at a service at a Kremlin church, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, to mark Orthodox Christmas.

In Kyiv, hundreds of worshippers on Saturday attended a historic service at the 11th century Kyiv Pechersk Lavra as Metropolitan Epifaniy, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, led a Christmas divine liturgy in the pro-Western country's most signifiant Orthodox monastery.

The service is expected to anger the Moscow Patriarchate. Located in the capital Kyiv, the monastery used to be the seat of a branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Chuch that was previously under Moscow's jurisdiction but which severed ties after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Orthodox Christians observe Christmas on January 7.

- 'Truly historic event' -

Ukrainian worshippers hailed the service led by the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

"We've waited for this shrine for a long time," Veronika Martyniuk told AFP outside the church.

"This is a truly historic event, which I think every Ukrainian has been waiting for. Especially after the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion," said the 19-year-old head of a choir from the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk.

Yury Slugin, a 33-year-old serviceman, said it was "especially important" for him to see the Ukrainian language and the Ukrainian church return to the Lavra. "This is a huge step for Ukraine," he added.

"Unfortunately, I am not at home today, far from my family," Slugin added, expressing hope that he will celebrate Christmas with his loved ones next year.

Security was tight around the monastery. Worshippers had their passports checked and had to walk through metal detectors.

In Russia and Ukraine, Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion and used to be seen as one of the strongest bonds tying the nations.

Ukrainians have now largely turned their backs on the Russian Orthodox Church whose head Patriarch Kirill has backed the invasion.

Even the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has sought to distance itself from Russia. But the branch has still come under pressure from Ukrainian authorities.

The security service last year raided the Lavra, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, over suspected links to Russian agents.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine was established in 2018. The Moscow Patriarchate does not recognise the new church.

On Saturday, the general staff of Ukraine's armed forces said that Russia launched one missile strike and fired 20 rounds from multiple rocket launchers over the past 24 hours.

In the eastern region of Donetsk, two people died and seven were wounded, while in the southern region of Kherson one person lost his life and another seven were injured Friday, said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine's presidency.

"Peaceful settlements in the region were attacked with artillery, anti-aircraft guns, mortars and tanks," said Yaroslav Yanushevych, the head of the Kherson regional administration.

Ukraine has dismissed the ceasefire -- due to last until the end of Saturday (2100 GMT) -- as a tactic by Russia to gain time to regroup its forces and bolster its defences following a series of battlefield setbacks.

- 'Good deeds' -

Putin's order to stop fighting during the Orthodox Christmas came after Moscow suffered its worst loss of life yet, with Ukrainian strikes killing 89 troops in the eastern town of Makiivka.

In a message released by the Kremlin on Saturday, Putin congratulated Orthodox Christians, saying the holiday inspired "good deeds and aspirations."

He also praised the Orthodox Church and said it was "supporting our soldiers taking part in a special military operation," using the official Kremlin term for the offensive in Ukraine.

"Such great, multifaceted, truly ascetic work deserves the most sincere respect," he added.

Patriarch Kirill has called on believers to support pro-Russian "brothers" during Moscow's offensive in eastern Ukraine.

In a sermon last year, he said that dying in Ukraine "washes away all sins".

bur-as/cw