MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin prayed alongside parishioners in a newly-built church close to the venues for the Sochi Winter Olympics on Tuesday as Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas.
Putin stood beside several hundred worshippers including women in headscarves for a midnight service in the Sochi church.
Russian Orthodox believers celebrate Christmas according to the Julian Calendar on January 7 because the Church never switched to the Gregorian Calendar, adopted elsewhere in Christendom from 1582.
"This bright holiday fills us with kind feelings and thoughts and serves to unite millions of people on the basis of shared spiritual values and historical traditions," Putin said in a telegram to Russians published on the Kremlin website.
The president makes a point of celebrating Christmas in provincial churches, while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as per his custom attended the country's main Christmas service in Moscow's Church of Christ the Saviour, led by the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.
The Patriarch ceremonially placed inside the church a shrine containing sacred relics brought from Mount Athos in Greece, believed to be the gifts of gold, Frankincense and myrrh presented by the Magi, or Three Wise Men to the Baby Jesus.
Putin last year also celebrated Christmas in Sochi, the Black Sea resort that will host next month's Winter Games, a massively important prestige project for Russia that he has strongly backed.
Orthodox Christmas Day coincided with the launch of a tight security zone around Sochi, restricting public access to the heavily-policed city a month ahead of the games' opening.
Putin has stressed his Orthodox beliefs and said he was secretly christened against the wishes of his strictly Communist father. Nevertheless, when he and his wife Lyudmila announced their divorce last year, it emerged that they had never had a Church blessing of their marriage.
Under Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church has gained a foothold in secular institutions, with priests participating in religious education in schools and acting as chaplains in the armed forces.
Russia is a secular state according to its Constitution, yet a study by state polling agency VTsIOM in November found that 44 percent thought Orthodox Christianity was the state religion.
While more than 70 percent of Russians describe themselves as Orthodox believers, few say they regularly attend church services or strictly follow all the teachings of the Church.