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Orthodox Christians Celebrate Christmas Amid Internal Divisions

Orthodox faithful attend Christmas services in the Russian city of Kazan on January 7.

Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas on January 7 as adherents gathered in Moscow, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Cairo, and cities throughout the world to usher in the holy day.

Orthodox churches, including those in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, and Jerusalem are among Orthodox and Eastern Rite churches that celebrate Christmas on January 7, using the Julian calendar.

The Armenian Orthodox Church celebrated Christmas on January 6. Most of the West observes it on December 25 under the Gregorian calendar.

Christmas this year comes at a difficult time within the Orthodox religion.

Ukraine in October secured approval from the Ecumenical Patriarch, the global spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity who sits in Istanbul, to set up an independent church, a move fiercely opposed by Russia.

Efforts by Ukrainians to establish an independent church intensified after Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and began supporting separatists shortly thereafter in parts of Ukraine's eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

In St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin presented the Transfiguration Cathedral with the icon of Christ Pantocrator as a Christmas gift, while Patriarch Kirill, the head of Russia’s Orthodox Church, conducted services in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Attendance at midnight Christmas mass has become a tradition for Russian leaders -- some of whom, like longtime KGB officer Putin, were staunch supporters of the Communist system during the Soviet era.

Hundreds of people marked Christmas in Bethlehem with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III at the Church of the Nativity, which was established on ground traditionally recognized as Jesus's birth site.

Palestinian police stood guard as several dozen demonstrators shouted "traitor" in protest of the Greek Orthodox church's sale of property in mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem to groups promoting Jewish settlements.

Israeli purchases of church land and property in east Jerusalem have angered Palestinians -- including many Orthodox Christians -- who consider the territory to be the capital of their future state. Israel has annexed east Jerusalem, but the move has not been recognized by the international community.

In Cairo, Egypt's president in a symbolic gesture inaugurated a new cathedral for the Coptic Orthodox Church and one of the region's largest mosques. It comes at a time when Islamic militants are increasingly targeting the country's minority Christians in deadly terror attacks.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has spoken of sectarian harmony as a major policy goal, but he has still faced criticism for not doing enough to protect Christian and other minorities.

"This is a historic and important moment. But we still have to protect the tree of love we planted here together today because seditions never end," the president said from inside the cathedral.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and TASS