Ukrainians mark Orthodox Christmas in Europe with a prayer: return home

by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska and Riham Alkousaa

WARSAW/BERLIN (Reuters) – Victoria, a refugee from Ukraine, is celebrating Orthodox Christmas in Poland with a simple prayer: that next year she will return home.

Aged 40, she is one of the millions of Ukrainians who fled the Russian invasion of their country and who celebrate this time of year with mixed feelings, torn between relief to be safe and sadness to be find themselves away from their families.

“The important thing is that it remains a family celebration (…) We hope to celebrate next Christmas with our families, back home,” says Victoria.

By candlelight, during a Christmas Eve mass under the great domes of the Cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene in Warsaw, priest Doroteusz Sawicki greeted the newcomers who had come to commemorate the birth of Christ.

“Two or three years ago we might wonder if someone would knock on our door, now we know someone is already there,” he told Reuters. “Many of our brothers who ended up in Poland because of the war cannot return to their homeland. They will take part in the celebrations with us.”

Many Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, but the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine has angered many Ukrainian Orthodox believers and divided the Orthodox Church around the world.

This year, some Ukrainians have chosen to celebrate Christmas with Catholics on December 25 in protest against Russian aggression, but many have preferred to stick to the calendar of the Orthodox tradition.

Similar scenes were seen at the Nathanael Orthodox Church in southwest Berlin, where the usual worshipers were joined by several dozen refugees, priest Oleg Polianko told Reuters.

“We are of course sad because of the war, but it’s Christmas and it’s a happy date. God is our protector and he helps us,” he added.

For Helena, a 60-year-old grandmother from Lviv, however, it remains difficult to spend Christmas in the German capital away from her family. This time last year, before the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, she still hoped war could be averted.

(Gilles Guillaume for the French version)

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