Orthodox Christians Around the World Celebrate Christmas

Russians crowded into candlelit churches and stood solemnly for hours Sunday night as priests chanted the liturgy for masses celebrating Orthodox Christmas.

Christmas falls on Jan. 7 for Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land, Russia and other Orthodox churches that use the old Julian calendar instead of the 16th-century Gregorian calendar adopted by Catholics and Protestants and commonly used in secular life around the world.

Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, presided at the country's most symbolically important Mass, at Christ the Savior Cathedral near the Kremlin in downtown Moscow.

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The cathedral, a reconstruction of the church dynamited under the officially atheist Communist regime of Josef Stalin, embodies the Orthodox Church's resurgent importance in the post-Soviet era.

Dmitry Medvedev, the first deputy prime minister who is all but certain to be elected President Vladimir Putin's successor in March, was prominently shown in state-controlled television's live broadcast of the Mass.

Putin attended a Christmas mass at a smaller church in Veliky Ustyug, about 400 miles northeast of Moscow.

By tradition, Veliky Ustyug is considered the home of Ded Moroz, the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus. But if Putin was seeking treatment, he was too late this year; gifts purportedly from Ded Moroz are given out on New Year's Eve.

Gaza's Community Prays for Peace

In Gaza City, Gaza's dwindling Eastern Orthodox community attended Christmas services in the ancient church here Monday, their holiday darkened by the killing of a Christian activist several months ago.

Only 200 worshippers sang Christmas hymns and lined up to receive communion at the 4th-century Greek Orthodox Church of St. Perfidious. Youths milling around the church saluted relatives and lamented the small size of the gathering this Christmas.

The tiny Christian minority in Gaza, estimated at no more than 3,000, has been unsettled in recent months by attacks on their churches by Islamic extremists. In October, a Greek Orthodox activist, Rami Khader Ayyad, 32, was killed.

Christian community leaders said emigration has accelerated following Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza in June.

Some 400 Christians, fearing persecution under Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers and hoping to escape economic hardship, left the territory to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem last month, some planning not to return.

The Christian community has never publicly accused Hamas of persecution, and its leaders have reassured the Christian community that it is safe in Gaza. But Christians say they fear radical Islamic groups will feel impunity under Islamic rulers. No one has been arrested yet in Ayyad's death.

Israel's sealing of its border with Gaza, and the privation that has caused, also marred the celebration, as did continued clashes with Israeli troops, which killed two civilians and three militants on Sunday. Infighting among rival Palestinian factions deepened the holiday gloom.

Outside the chapel door, Leena Dabbagh said the Christmas spirit had been all but extinguished in Gaza. Dabbagh, 19, traveled to the West Bank town of Bethlehem last month to celebrate Christmas there, and bought new clothes, chocolate and holiday items back to Gaza to guarantee herself some Christmas cheer.

"It is as if there is no feast here," Dabbagh said.

Majd and Amir Shaheen, 6-month-old twins, came to church dressed in miniature Santa Claus costumes.

"We are trying to feel the Christmas," their father, Samer Shaheen, said.

With Christians leaving the area, and rising fear of Gaza's Islamic radicalization, Rizk Suri, a worshipper at the church, said the community was concerned.

"We are a small community," Suri said. "We want to live in peace with all. We always pray for peace."

'Power-Monger' Message in Belgrade

In Belgrade, the Serbian Orthodox Church used its Christmas message Monday to lash out at what it called world "power-mongers" seeking to take away Kosovo from Serbia.

The church said that world powers were "shamelessly violating all norms of God's and human justice" by backing independence for the separatist province.

The Christmas message was read out by hardline Bishop Amfilohije because of the illness of Serbian Patriarch Pavle, who has been hospitalized since November. The 93-year-old patriarch is suffering from heart and other health problems.

The Serbian church said that Kosovo was "our holy land, the heart and soul of the Serbian people."

"Today, the power-mongers of this world are throwing dice for our ... land and shamelessly insulting our feelings and our dignity," the church said. "Today, for their own interests in the Balkans and Europe .... they want to take away from the Serb people their cradle, heart and soul that will forever remain in Kosovo."

Kosovo, which has been run by the United Nations and NATO since 1999, was the ancient seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church, whose hundreds of monasteries and churches still remain there.

The region is now dominated by separatist ethnic Albanians, whose decades-long bid for independence from Serbia has won support from the United States and its allies.

Serbia, backed by its Orthodox Christian ally, Russia, refuses to cave in on Kosovo, insisting it should remain part of its territory with a high level of autonomy.

Tragedy in Alaska

Five followers of a dissident sect of the Russian Orthodox Church died in Alaska when their chartered plane went down in the shallow harbor after taking off on Saturday. The pilot also was killed.

The passengers were members of Alaska's community of Russian Orthodox Old Believers who had been fishing in Kodiak and were taking a short flight north to Homer to celebrate Eastern Orthodox Christmas at home on Monday.

The pilot of a float plane that had been taxiing nearby said he pulled the four survivors aboard. One of the men was bleeding profusely from a head wound, and all of them were hysterical, saying that family members were in the submerged plane, Dean Andrew said.

"Once I got the four in, I could see down into the fuselage, but I couldn't see any signs of life," Andrew said. "I had an emotional time. I thought about diving in but I had to keep the plane running to hold it steady against the wind."

Andrew said he heard on his plane's radio that 50-year-old pilot Robin Starrett said he needed to return to the airport. Andrew said he could tell by Starrett's voice that something serious was going on.

"I decided to stay put in case I was needed," Andrew said. "I had a feeling something would happen."

Johnson said a survivor, 32-year-old Karnely Ivanov, told investigators that just as the Piper got airborne, the baggage area door opened at the nose of the plane on the pilot's side. That prompted Starrett to try to return to the airport.

Beside Starrett, also killed were five passengers from Homer: Stefan F. Basargin, 36; Pavel F. Basargin, 30; Zahary F. Martushev, 25; Iosif F. Martushev, 15; and Andrian Reutov, 22, officials said.

Iosif Martushev was a ninth-grader at Kachemak Selo school, and Reutov and Zahary Martushev were former students there, said Randy Creamer, the school's principal. The small school sits near Homer on the Kenai Peninsula in one of three area Old Believer villages.

Creamer described Iosif as an artistic student who loved to make sketches of moose, snowmobiles and fishing boats. Zahary Martushev was married and had several children, and Reutov got married last fall, Creamer said.

Besides Ivanov, the survivors were identified as Feodot Basargin, 33; Andrean V. Basargin, 25; and Anton Rijkoff, 30. The flight was operated by Kodiak-based Servant Air.

Russian Orthodox Old Believers split from the main Russian Orthodox church in the 17th century in protest of changes made at that time. Their members are scattered throughout Russia, Asia and the Western Hemisphere. About 1,500 are believed to live in Alaska.

"Everybody knows everybody. It's a tragedy," said Greg Yakunin, an Old Believer and fisherman. "They were all friends of mine."

Two survivors were flown to Anchorage for treatment, including Feodot Basargin, who was in fair condition, said John Callahan, spokesman for Providence Health and Services Alaska. The conditions of the other three were not available, but Alaska State Troopers said the two who remained in Kodiak were treated and released.

Servant Air serves half a dozen communities on the large island in south-central Alaska, 225 miles southwest of Anchorage. Kodiak and Homer each have populations of roughly 6,000.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.