Millions of Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas on January 7, and Russia's leaders were among many who attended midnight Masses on a holiday marred by the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his wife, Svetlana, attended a Christmas Mass at the cavernous Christ the Savior Cathedral near the Kremlin in Moscow, where Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill led the ceremony.
President Vladimir Putin, who has taken to attending Christmas Mass in the provinces instead of Moscow, apparently seeking to display humility and solidarity with ordinary Russians, went to a village church in the Voronezh region in southern Russia.
Images showed a sweater-clad Putin standing among churchgoers, mostly women and girls in white head scarves, and lighting a candle in the church.
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.
In an annual televised address on Christmas Eve, Kirill said, "We are living in difficult times" but assured believers: "We have never been abandoned in our history by our savior, if we appealed to him. This will not happen now."
In a separate message released by his press service, Kirill offered prayers for peace in Ukraine and suggested "external forces" were trying to divide Russians and Ukrainians -- echoing Kremlin accusations that the West is largely to blame for the conflict between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Kirill said 2015 is the 1,000-year anniversary of the death of Prince Vladimir, who adopted Christianity as the religion of Kievan Rus, which many Russians and Ukrainians consider a predecessor of their modern states.
"No temporary troubles or external forces will be able to break the centuries-old spiritual and cultural ties of the heirs of Kyiv's baptism," he said.
Kirill, whose critics say has aligned the Russian Orthodox Church too closely with the Kremlin and given Putin political support, said the church has done and will continue to do all it can to promote "reconciliation" and help "overcome the consequences of hatred."
Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, said on January 6 at Kyiv's St. Volodymyr Church: "Let us pray to God that he will bestow upon us victory over our visible and invisible enemies, for peace in Ukraine and in the whole world."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko hosted children on Christmas Eve at his home, where they sang carols, and urged Ukrainians to pray for the troops fighting against the pro-Russian separatists.
Quoting from the Bible, he said, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."
The Ukrainian military said on January 7 that rebels had fired at government forces 15 times overnight with mortars, artillery and guns, mostly in the Donetsk region.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said later in the day that three soldiers had been killed.
More than 4,700 people have been killed since April in the conflict, in which Kyiv and NATO say Russia has given the rebels direct military support, and fighting continues despite a September 5 deal on a cease-fire and steps toward peace.
In a Christmas message posted on the Kremlin website on January 7, Putin said the Russian Orthodox Church "and other traditional Christian faiths" have played a "huge, truly unique role in affirming high moral principles in the life of our society."
Russian Patriarch Kirill's flock includes some believers in ex-Soviet republics including Ukraine and Belarus and is the largest in Orthodox Christianity.
The Georgian, Serbian, and Jerusalem Orthodox churches, as well as rival churches in Ukraine, are among Orthodox and Eastern Rite churches that celebrate Christmas on January 7, using the Julian calendar.
In Georgia, where heavy snow stranded travelers and cut off parts of the country, Patriarch Ilia II led a midnight service in the capital, Tbilisi.