Orthodox Christians Mark Christmas, Celebrate Epiphany

Millions of Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land, Russia and other Eastern Orthodox churches around the world celebrated Epiphany on Friday, nearly two weeks after Christmas celebrations by Roman Catholics, Protestants, and some other Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Christian feast, intended to commemorate the revelation of God to mankind in Jesus Christ, is celebrated as Christmas to believers who follow the Julian calendar instead of the 16th-century Gregorian calendar adopted by Catholics and Protestants and commonly used in the world. In some eastern churches, Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River, while in western churches it marks the visit of the three magi to the baby Jesus.

The head of the dominant Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, urged good deeds in a message to the people before a late-night service at the recently restored Christ the Savior Cathedral near the Kremlin.

Alexy urged believers to "do something good for those close to us, with whom we walk the same path of life," the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Patriarch Bartholomew I, considered "first among equals" of the world's Orthodox patriarchs and the spiritual leader of the world's 200 million-plus Orthodox Christians, meanwhile celebrated Epiphany with an audience of American followers, commending them for their "steadfastness in maintaining the faith."

"We salute you for your steadfastness in maintaining the faith of your ancestral tradition, as well as your love for the beautiful, spiritual, cultural and folk traditions in which you reverently persevere," Bartholomew said Friday in his liturgy, delivered in Greek.

"Truly it is out of respect and love for the memory of your forebears that you have clung to your ecclesiastical and ancestral customs," the Associated Press reported him as saying.

Bartholomew led U.S. celebrations of Epiphany by ritually throwing a cross into the Gulf of Mexico.

The patriarch earlier used his five-day visit to the United States to announce that Pope Benedict XVI would officially visit the Patriarchate in Turkey in 2006 as both religious leaders strive to build bridges between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and heal the ages-old rift. The last talks broke off five years ago.

"We are going to restart our dialogue on an international level with the Roman Catholic Church," the Patriarch told reporters on Thursday, according to Reuters. "We are also glad to announce that Pope Benedict will officially visit the Patriarchate in 2006.”

The Vatican had previously accepted Ankara's invitation but Bartholomew's comments indicated more certainty that a visit would occur this year.

On Saturday, Bartholomew will travel to New Orleans, where he is to be joined by Roman Catholic Archbishop Alfred Hughes for a visit to flood-damaged areas of the Lower Ninth Ward. It will be the first time an Orthodox patriarch has visited New Orleans.