Convulsed by war, tearful Ukrainians mark Orthodox Easter

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YIV/KRAMATORSK (Reuters) -President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Sunday that light would defeat darkness and Kyiv would triumph over Russia as Ukrainians marked a bitterly emotional Orthodox Easter overshadowed by the grinding two-month-old war.

Ukrainians flocked to churches on Sunday morning to mark what they call the Great Day after their centuries-old tradition of midnight Easter services was abandoned the night before over fears of Russian shelling and a nationwide curfew.

Zelenskiy spoke to Ukrainians in a video address from Kyiv’s 1,000-year-old Saint Sophia Cathedral exactly two months since the Kremlin launched an invasion of Ukraine that it calls a “special military operation”.

“This great holiday gives us hope and an unwavering belief that light will defeat darkness, good will defeat evil, life will defeat death and therefore Ukraine is certain to triumph,” Zelenskiy told Ukrainians.

Not far from the eastern front line where fighting is raging, shelling rumbled as a priest led a service for a congregation of three in Kramatorsk city where authorities have been rushing to evacuate people who are still there.

Below Kyiv’s skyline of golden onion domes, hundreds of churchgoers gathered at Volodymyr Cathedral. Some shed tears and prayed for an end to the war. They said the holiday had taken on greater emotional significance because of the national hardship.

“We’ve started to value everything a little differently, you value every day differently because you understand that you could lose this,” said Darya Barabash, 30, who was expecting a baby girl.

Long queues formed outside the cathedral as worshippers carrying baskets of ornately painted Easter eggs and paska, a traditional Ukrainian Easter bread, waited to receive blessings from a priest.

In the northeast Kharkiv region where shelling has intensifed in recent weeks, an army chaplain conducted a service for soldiers on the frontlines, splashing them with holy water and taking confessions.

For a few hours in the morning, Ukrainian television took a break from war coverage of death and destruction, airing emotional scenes of people praying, priests intoning and the churches that dot the country.

By mid-morning the governor of the eastern Donetsk region that is targeted by a new Russian offensive said that two children aged 5 and 14 had been killed in shelling on Sunday. Russia denies targeting civilians.

Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region, said that seven churches there have been destroyed during the war.

While churches used to be full for overnight and morning Easter services, this year churches have been asked not to gather many people, with concerns they could be targets for missiles.

“Our nation has always been united. And today we are showing that it is impossible to scare us,” said Mikhail, a worshipper in army uniform. “Even though many were saying there would be provocations at churches, God protects us, our faith protects us and Christ is risen, truly he is risen.”

Reporting by Natalia Zinets and Parniyan Zemaryalai in Kyiv; Hamuda Hassan in Kramatorsk; Writing by Tom Balmforth Editing by Frances Kerry, Alexandra Hudson

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