Serhiy Petrovytch Doumenko, Metropolitan Epifaniy of Kyiv, Head of Ukraine’s Orthodox church, led an Orthodox Christmas service at the Pechersk Lavra monastery. — AFP

Ukrainians and Russians on Saturday marked Orthodox Christ­mas under the shadow of war, as fighting persisted despite Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin unilaterally ordering his forces to pause attacks.

Despite Putin’s ceasefire order war-scarred cities in eastern Ukraine saw no significant let-up in the fighting as AFP journalists in the town of Chasiv Yar south of the frontline city of Bakhmut heard heavy artillery fire throughout much of Saturday morning.

The Russian defence ministry insisted on Saturday the army was observing the ceasefire but also said that it had repelled the Kyiv forces’ attacks in eastern Ukraine and killed dozens of soldiers on Friday. Ukrainian authorities said three people were killed on Friday.

In Moscow, 70-year-old Putin cut a lonely figure as he stood by himself at a service at a Kremlin church, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, to mark Orthodox Christmas.

In Kyiv, hundreds of worshippers on Saturday attended a historic service at the 11th-century Kyiv Pechersk Lavra as Metropolitan Epifaniy, head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, led a Christmas divine liturgy in the pro-Western country’s most significant Orthodox monastery.

Orthodox Christians observe Christmas on January 7.

‘Truly historic event’

Ukrainian worshippers hailed the service led by the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

“We’ve waited for this shrine for a long time,” Veronika Martyniuk told AFP outside the church.

“This is a truly historic event, which I think every Ukrainian has been waiting for. Especially after the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion,” said the 19-year-old head of a choir from the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk.

In Russia and Ukraine, Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion and used to be seen as one of the strongest bonds tying the nations.

Ukrainians have now largely turned their backs on the Russian Orthodox Church whose head Patriarch Kirill has backed the invasion.

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