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Ukraine Debates Celebrating Christmas Twice over Crimea

A global roundup of the politics of Christmas in 2015.
Ukraine Debates Celebrating Christmas Twice over Crimea
Image: Sofiia Kovryga / Shutterstock

Some countries banned Christmas. Ukraine is debating celebrating it twice.

Following the lead of the Russian Orthodox Church, Ukraine celebrates Christmas on January 7. But after the annexation of Crimea in February 2014, relations have been fraying between the Russian Orthodox Church—known in Ukraine as the Moscow Patriarchate—and the Ukrainian faithful.

Now two controversial petitions to add December 25 as an officially recognized holiday are circulating, a change that would bring Ukraine more in line with the West and take another step back from Russia.

The Moscow Patriarchate is losing favor with Ukrainians who want the church to clearly oppose Russia’s actions. For example, four months after the Crimea annexation, the church officially accepted it.

Meanwhile, the Kiev Patriarchate—the Moscow Patriarchate’s Orthodox competition—sent military chaplains to the front, declared that Putin was under Satan’s influence, and lobbied US senators for support, reported the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

So Ukrainians have been switching loyalties, even though the Kiev Patriarchate isn’t officially recognized by other Orthodox churches. About a quarter of Ukrainians (26%) belonged to the Moscow Patriarchate in 2011; that number dropped to 21 percent in 2015, the WSJ reported. About 31 percent were part of the Kiev Patriarchate in 2011, rising to 44 percent in 2015.

Two petitions asking for the second Christmas date are posted on the presidential website. If enough signatures are gathered, President Petro Poroshenko and then parliament would consider the matter, reported Reuters. Evangelical Focus notes that one prominent evangelical, the secretary of Ukraine’s security council, supports the idea.

Across the border in Crimea, “Russian occupation authorities” are threatening all religions outside the Russian Orthodox Church, the US State Department reported in October.

“In the areas they control, the separatists have kidnapped, beaten, and threatened Protestants, Catholics, and members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the [Kiev] Patriarchate,” the report said.

More than 1,100 religious communities that were recognized under Ukrainian law are no longer allowed under Russian law, according to Forum 18. Of the 1,546 religious groups that existed before the annexation, only about 400 were able to meet the stringent requirements to re-register. The deadline was January 1.

Those requirements obligated leaders to become Russian citizens, to join an existing centralized religious organization, or, in some cases, to pass a state religion expertise test, Forum 18 reported. (CT previously covered the disappearance of Crimea’s churches.)

The violence has spilled over into Ukraine, where leaders of the Evangelical Protestant Churches of Ukraine said that pro-Russian Orthodox militants had subjected their members to “abduction, beating, torture, murder threats, and damage to houses of worship, seizure of religious buildings, and damage to health and private property of the clergy,” the Free Beacon reported.

In other areas of the world, Christmas was outlawed altogether. The Somali government announced on December 22 that Christmas and New Year’s celebrations were banned, since they “could damage the faith of the Muslim community,” reported Morning Star News. The holidays were cancelled at the last minute in 2014 as well, then reinstated in January 2015.

The small Southeast Asian country of Brunei also newly forbid Christmas, and fines those who participate up to $20,000 or 5 years in prison. Violations include wearing a cross, lighting candles, putting up decorations, or sending Christmas cards, AsiaNews reported.

Tajikistan also ratcheted up Christmas restraint, adding bans on Christmas trees and gift-giving in schools to previous restrictions on Russia’s version of Santa Claus—Father Frost.

And while Christmas is already a public holiday in India, the increasingly pro-Hindu government announced on December 4 that it would begin celebrating “Good Governance Day” on December 25 as well, reported World Watch Monitor (WWM).

“There is definitely a deliberate attempt to undermine the importance of Christmas,” Roger Gaikwad, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in India, told WWM. “The move cannot be seen in isolation from what is happening in the country. The BJP government has been keen on suppressing the minorities, their culture and icons at different levels.”

Even under pressure, Christians still found ways to observe the birth of Jesus. A social media campaign titled #MyTreedom features photos of Christmas celebrations worldwide, some with blurred faces to protect the participants. The campaign calls for “freedom from persecution and the right to Christmas everywhere around the world.”

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