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Orthodox Christians Celebrate Epiphany

Epiphany

CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA   01/06/12 03:24 PM ET  AP

ISTANBUL — Orthodox Christian worshippers plunged into chilly waters across southern and eastern Europe on Friday to retrieve crucifixes in ceremonies commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ.

Hundreds of members of Istanbul's tiny Greek Orthodox community and tourists from neighboring Greece attended the Epiphany ceremony of the Blessing of the Waters. About 20 faithful leaped into the wintry waters of the Golden Horn inlet to retrieve a wooden cross thrown by the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

Apostolos Oikonomou, a 40-year-old Greek participating in the swim for the fourth year, clinched the cross. "This year I was the lucky guy," he said. "I wish everybody peace and happy new year."

Christians worldwide celebrate the feast of Epiphany as Jesus' revelation to the world as the son of God. While Western Christians mark it as the day the biblical Magi are said to have arrived to view the baby Jesus, Orthodox Christians commemorate Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.

Some Orthodox Christian churches, including those in Russia, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, follow a different calendar, and Friday was Christmas Eve, with Epiphany on Jan. 19.

In Bulgaria, young men marked Epiphany by jumping into rivers and lakes to recover crucifixes cast by priests in an old ritual. Tradition there holds that the person who retrieves a cross will be freed from evil spirits.

Priests of Bulgaria's Orthodox Church said prayers for prosperity and blessed the colors of army units, a tradition abandoned by the communist regime in 1946 and re-established in 1992. President Georgi Parvanov greeted the military parade in Sofia, the capital.

In the mountain city of Kalofer, in central Bulgaria, 200 men in traditional dress waded into the icy Tundzha River with national flags. Inspired by the music of a folk orchestra and by homemade plum brandy, they danced a slow "mazhko horo," or men's dance, stomping on the rocky riverbed. Led by the town's mayor, a bass drummer and several bagpipers, the men danced for nearly an hour, up to their waists in the cold water, pushing away floating chunks of ice.

In the Romanian village of Petrosani, north of Bucharest, some 1,000 villagers gathered for a traditional blessing of horses to give thanks for the animals who play an important role in sustaining livelihoods.

"They drag wood and stones for us, and this is a celebration for them too," said Catalin Ristea, a 20-year-old agricultural worker, sporting a cowboy hat on his blonde-streaked hair.

Orthodox priests sprinkled more than a dozen horses with holy water, and horses took part in impromptu log-dragging competitions cheered on by villagers. A tiny Shetland was the star of Epiphany as it doggedly pulled a cart weighed down with 10 locals.

Friday's celebration was crowned by a horse race as riders without saddles or stirrups charged across the misty fields. Villagers ate spicy meatballs cooked on an open grill and washed down with red wine, while children enjoyed swirls of pink candy floss.

In Istanbul, dozens of police in riot gear stood guard at the outdoor Epiphany ceremony as a precaution following past protests by nationalists against the Patriarchate, which dates from the Byzantine Empire.

Bartholomew has called for the reopening of a theology school on an island near Istanbul that trained generations of church leaders, including himself, until it was closed by Turkey in 1971 under a law that put religious and military training under state control. The Halki Theological School closed its doors entirely in 1985, when the last five students graduated.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who met Bartholomew on a visit to Turkey last month, said he hoped Turkey would reopen the seminary.

For years, Turkey has said it is working on a formula that could pave the way for the reopening of the seminary. In August, Turkey's government said it was returning hundreds of properties confiscated from the country's Christian and Jewish minorities over the past 75 years in a gesture to the religious groups, who say they still face discrimination.

In Kosovo, minority Serbs who live surrounded by Albanians in the enclave of Gracanica rose early Friday in bitterly cold weather and cut down oak trees from nearby woods, gathering branches to adorn the entrance to their houses as tradition dictates.

Kosovo was the ancient seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has hundreds of monasteries and churches in a region dominated by ethnic Albanians. Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade rejects its claim to statehood. Albanians in Kosovo are mostly Muslim.

Many Roman Catholics also marked Epiphany on Friday. Across Poland, believers celebrated with religious processions, including a gathering in Warsaw attended by thousands. The Communists banned Poles celebrating Epiphany and it was only reinstated as a state holiday in 2011.

Led by Warsaw Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz, people walked through the city center, sometimes singing religious songs, in a procession that featured camels and people dressed up as the three kings visiting Jesus or in medieval-style clothing.

___

Associated Press writers Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, Nebi Qena in Pristina, Kosovo and Alison Mutler in Petrosani, Romania, contributed.

See Photos Of Epiphany And Three Kings Celebrations From Around The World
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  • Southern Spain

    A men dressed as King Melchior meets children upon his arrival with men dressed as Kings Balthazar and Melchior, otherwise known as the three wise men or Kings to take part in an Epiphany street parade on Jan. 5, 2012 in Fuengirola, southern Spain. The parades are held each year on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the gospel story of the coming of three wise men to bring gifts to the Christ child.

  • New York City

    Tall puppets representing Three Kings are led on East 106 Street during the 34th Annual Three Kings Day Parade Jan. 6, 2010 in the Spanish Harlem section of New York. The parade celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany and New York's Latino community with a procession of children, camels, puppets and performers.

  • Vatican

    Youths dressed as the three Kings greet Pope Benedict XVI as celebrates the solemnity of Mary the Mother of God mass and the 45th World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, 2012 at the Vatican basilica.

  • Budapest

    A vendor shows a carving work dubbed "Three Kings of Bethlehem Jesus Christmas," by a Hungarian artist Sandor Tisza, in Vorosmarty square in Budapest on Dec. 19, 2011 during a Christmas fair in the heart of the city few day before Christmas.

  • San Salvador

    Men dressed as the Wise Men are seen during Epiphany celebrations in a church in San Salvador on Jan. 6, 2011. Epiphany feast day is commonly celebrated throughout Latin America -- where it is known as 'Dia de los Reyes' (Day of the Kings) -- honouring the arrival of the Three Wise Men bearing gifts for the new-born Jesus, as written in the Bible.

  • Mexico City

    People eat the traditional "Rosca de Reyes" -- a large ring-shaped bread roll baked for Epiphany -- in Mexico City, on Jan. 4, 2011. The 720-metre circumference 'Rosca de Reyes', weighing 10 metric tons -- the world biggest -- was distributed among 500,000 people at Zocalo Square in Mexico City.

  • Vilnius

    People dressed as the Three Kings along with residents and city guests celebrate the Three Kings day in the old district of Vilnius, on Jan. 6, 2011.

  • Warsaw

    Volunteers dressed as Three Magi bring their gifts during the Epiphany parade through Warsaw on Jan. 6, 2011. Poland clebrates Epiphany as an official public holiday for the first time after 50 years. The Epiphany feast day celebrates the visit of the Three Kings, or Magi, to the infant Jesus.

  • Kiev

    Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate Patriarch Filaret (C) blesses the Dnieper river on Jan. 19, 2011 during Epiphany celebrations. Thousands of Orthodox believers took part in a baptism ceremony to mark Epiphany.

  • Belgrade

    Serbs lift a cross retrieved on Jan. 19, 2011 in the Danube river in Belgrade on Epiphany day. It is said that the person who grabs the cross first, thrown into the water by an Eastern Orthodox pope, will be healthy throughout the New Year.

  • Moscow

    A Russian Orthodox priest blesses water near downtown Moscow during the Orthodox Epiphany holiday service late on Jan. 18, 2011. People take part in a baptism ceremony during the traditional celebration of Epiphany, one the biggest events in the Christian Orthodox calendar.

  • New York City

    Tall puppets representing Three Kings are led on East 106 Street during the 34th Annual Three Kings Day Parade January 6, 2010 in the Spanish Harlem section of New York. The parade celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany and New York's Latino community with a procession of children, camels, puppets and performers.

  • New York City

    Three Kings portrayed by Marcus Luna (L), Marcus Sanchez (C) and Junio Alvarado (R) pose with camels after the 34th Annual Three Kings Day Parade Jan. 6, 2010 in the Spanish Harlem section of New York. The parade celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany and New York's Latino community with a procession of children, camels, puppets and performers.

  • New York City

    Three camels are led up Third Avenue during the 34th Annual Three Kings Day Parade Jan. 6, 2010 in the Spanish Harlem section of New York. The parade celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany and New York's Latino community with a procession of children, camels, puppets and performers.

  • New York City

    Camels march through a street of East Harlem during The Three Kings Day Parade, in New York, Jan. 6, 2010. The Three Kings Day Parade is an annual celebration in New York City that commemorates the most festive day of the winter season in Latin American culture. The celebration is designed to pay tribute to the day that the three kings came to visit baby Jesus.

  • New York City

    Camels march through a street of East Harlem during The Three Kings Day Parade, in New York, Jan. 6, 2010. The Three Kings Day Parade is an annual celebration in New York City that commemorates the most festive day of the winter season in Latin American culture. The celebration is designed to pay tribute to the day that the three kings came to visit baby Jesus.

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