An Orthodox Christian diocese in eastern Macedonia has banned female swimmers from taking part in the annual blessing of the waters ceremony to mark the Epiphany holiday.

Tens of thousands of people across the landlocked country Monday attended river and lakeside religious ceremonies, where swimmers raced to retrieve crosses thrown into the water.

Women were banned from taking part in the eastern Bregalnica area, where clergy said the cross should be retrieved by a man because of his role as traditional head of the family.

Police intervened in the area last year, when a female swimmer reached the cross first but had it forcibly taken from her by a man.