Today (7 January 2007) is the day of Christmas celebrations for 150 million Orthodox Christians across the world ‚Äì the branch of the global Christian family which still claims the deepest links with the post-apostolic Church.
Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches observe Christmas on 7 January because they retained the Julian calendar for their liturgical schedule when the Wester church switched to the Gregorian calendar.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church used the occasion of his Christmas Eve message on Satuday 6 January to welcome the growth of his own community and to call especially for peace in the Middle East.
Patriarch Alexy II declared: ‚ÄúThe tragic events in the Holy Land have caused great pain in the hearts of all believers. There, where 2,000 years ago the angels announced 'Glory to God in the highest and peace on Earth,' the blood of the innocent has been spilled anew.‚Äù
The hope for peace in the land of the birth of Christianity and the co-existence of three great monotheistic faiths was also expressed by a number of other Orthodox leaders.
The Russian Orthodox Church has seen a powerful recovery since the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union in 1991. It now claims more than 27,000 parishes and 700 monasteries throughout the former USSR.
But some of its critics claim that it is working too closely with current Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who they accuse of authoritarian rule. Particular concern is being expressed by civil rights groups for religious and other minorities, including unregistered Protestant groups.
The registration of religious groups has been a matter of great debate and disagreement, with some saying that the Orthodox are backing such measures to restrict the growth of their Christian and other competitors. They, meanwhile, say that other Christians are proselytising ('sheep stealing') in traditional Orthodox settings.
Ecumenical bodies and conversations, both regionally and globally, have attempted to regulate and resolve such disagreements.
The division between the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic and other) churches has now lasted nearly 1,200 years. It began with the christening on Christmas Day in 800 BEC of Charlemagne as the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
It is this event which many identify with the high water mark of Western Christendom, the mutually collusive alliance of church and state which has begun to unravel at an increasing pace in recent years.
The Feast of the Birth of Christ is a day of both solemn ritual and joyous celebration in the Orthodox tradition.