Orthodox celebrate Easter around the world, pope looks forward to unity

ISTANBUL – Led by their spiritual leader, Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios I, Christians throughout the Orthodox world celebrated Easter on Sunday with liturgies and Easter eggs. In Istanbul, Vartholomaios wafted incense as he walked through the Cathedral of St George to bless more than 1,000 worshipers during an Easter service on Sunday morning at the Patriarchate. About a thousand people, mostly Greek pilgrims, attended the service, joining the few Orthodox Christians who still live in this mostly Muslim country. At the end, Vartholomaios handed out colorfully painted Easter eggs, wrapped in red and white cloth, to the congregants. The Armenian patriarch of Istanbul, Mesrob II, joined Vartholomaios in the opening procession into the gold-inlaid church which overlooks Istanbul’s Golden Horn. The service was in Greek, but the gospel was read in several other languages including English, French and Turkish. «It’s the dream of every Orthodox to spend Easter… here at the Patriarchate,» said Arsinoe Lainioti, a lawyer, who came from Athens with her two daughters and husband for the celebrations. «It’s the center of Orthodoxy. We’ve heard about this church our whole lives.» Earlier on Sunday, Vartholomaios – wearing a jewel-encrusted crown and carrying a golden staff – presided over a midnight liturgy at the Patriarchate. At the stroke of midnight, bells rang without interruption and worshipers holding newly lit candles broke into prayer. «The feast of the Resurrection of Christ is for us a turning point of joy within the vast sea of the sorrows of life,» Vartholomaios told the worshipers, in his annual Easter message. In Greece, celebrations of the country’s main religious holiday were encouraged by some early summer weather. City-dwellers flocked to the countryside for traditional outdoor meals of spit-roasted lamb. Greece’s Orthodox church leader, Archbishop Christodoulos, said the Resurrection provided «spiritual confirmation for all believers.» The Easter celebrations in Greece started with candlelit services before midnight in parishes across the country. At many of the churches, the candles were lit from a flame, symbolizing the Resurrection, which was brought by a specially chartered plane from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Many of the services were accompanied by firework displays. In Russia, Patriarch Alexei II led a five-hour televised midnight service, which was attended by President Vladimir Putin. The patriarch said it was the duty of Christians to oppose evil and said the church was prepared to give assistance to the forces fighting terrorism. Alexei also urged Israel to withdraw from the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. «Together with other local churches, the Russian Orthodox Church has repeatedly called on the rival sides not to allow sacrilege of this church,» Alexei said, according to ITAR-Tass news agency. In Yugoslavia, Patriarch Pavle, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, held an Easter Sunday liturgy in Belgrade’s Monastery of the Presentation of the Most Holy Mother of God. In his Easter message, the patriarch invoked the sanctity of family and marriage. «Given life’s ever faster pace, people have less and less time for each other,» the patriarch said in the written message. In Italy, Pope John Paul II offered Easter wishes to the Orthodox faithful who celebrated Easter several weeks after his own church marked the same joyous celebration. After celebrating mass on the southern island of Ischia, John Paul told the crowd in a seaside square, «My thought goes to our eastern brothers, who today celebrate, according to their calendar, the Easter holiday.» «We unite our hearts with their exultation for the Resurrection of Christ, praying to our common Lord so that as soon as possible all Christians can experience the joy of full unity,» John Paul said.