MOSCOW (AP) - The head of the Russian Orthodox Church expressed satisfaction with the growth of the church and called for peace in the Middle East in his Christmas Eve message Saturday.
"Ever more people are returning to the homeland faith, churches are filled with parishioners of all ages, millions of people are reading spiritual literature and taking part in church affairs," Patriarch Alexy II said in his message.
The Russian Orthodox Church, like some other Orthodox churches, including the one in Serbia, observes Christmas on Jan. 7 because it follows the Julian calendar for its liturgical schedule instead of the Gregorian calendar, adopted by Roman Catholics and Protestants and commonly used in secular life around the world.
The Russian church has seen a strong revival 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 U.S.S.R..
During Soviet rule, the church continued to operate under tightly constrained conditions. Many Russian Orthodox believers overseas considered the Moscow-based church essentially a Kremlin pawn and formed a splinter denomination, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.
The two churches reconciled last year, and in May plan to sign a formal reunification.
Alexy noted those moves with satisfaction, saying that "the unity and links that were broken as a result of the tragic events of 80 years ago, today are being restored, and in this we see the kindness of God."
However, the patriarch expressed deep concern about tensions in the Middle East.
"The 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," he said.
Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle, meanwhile, urged Serbs to overcome "senseless" internal divisions, and called on Serbs in Kosovo to be steadfast amid tensions.
Orthodox Serbs consider Kosovo, although today predominantly ethnic Albanian and Muslim, the heart of their ancient homeland. Since the end of a 1998-1999 war between ethnic Albanian rebels and Serb forces, Kosovo's minority Serbs have lived in guarded enclaves under fear of attack at the hands of Albanians, and many Orthodox churches and monuments there have been destroyed or vandalized.
"In the end, the oppressed will defeat the oppressors," Pavle said. "We pray for our enemies so they see that doing evil can bring no good."
Kosovo has been under UN administration since 1999. Its final status, expected to be decided this year, is an issue of high tension.
Alexy, in a meeting with journalists on Friday, decried the destruction of churches in Kosovo, saying they "are being destroyed with the reticent agreement or silence of those who should raise their voice in defence of these holy places," according to the church website.