If you ask anyone in America, “When do you celebrate Christmas?” the person will look at you cross-eyed and wonder if you were mentally deficient or in the early stages of dementia (I live in Florida and there are a lot of old people. I’m now one of them!). December 25th, of course! The majority do not realize that the members of the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrate Christmas on January 7th.
The differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church (which includes Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox) is one of the dynamics at play in Ukraine.
About 9 percent of Ukrainians (about 3.6 million persons) are Greek Catholics, meaning they are Catholics who belong to Churches of the Byzantine rite. The vast majority of these are part of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is led by Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuck of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Kyiv-Halych.
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The majority of Christians in Ukraine are Eastern Orthodox; especially those who live in eastern Ukraine:
The Eastern Orthodox Church, also called the Orthodox Church, is the second-largest Christian church,[a] with approximately 220 million baptized members. It operates as a communion of autocephalous churches, each governed by its bishops via local synods. The church has no central doctrinal or governmental authority analogous to the head of the Roman Catholic Church—the Pope—but the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is recognized by them as primus inter pares (“first among equals”), which may be explained as a representative of the church. As one of the oldest surviving religious institutions in the world, the Eastern Orthodox Church has played a prominent role in the history and culture of Eastern and Southeastern Europe. The Eastern Orthodox Church officially calls itself the Orthodox Catholic Church.[
Although both churches believe in Jesus, the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do not view each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Sad. But it gets worse — Zelensky’s Ukrainian government is targeting the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Ukrainian counter-intelligence services have turned their sights on some Orthodox clergy whom they suspect of pro-Russian sentiment and activity. Ukraine’s secret service examined belongings of a parishioner at the entrance to the Pechersk Lavra monastic complex in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. Ukraine’s counter-intelligence service, police officers and the country’s National Guard searched one of the most famous Orthodox Christian sites in the capital, Kyiv, after a priest spoke favorably about Russia – Ukraine’s invader – during a service. (AP Photo/Efrem Luka)
I was contacted tonight by a Ukrainian friend who spoke recently to the head of the Lavra Metropolit, Vladyka Pavel. He shared the following:
Pavel said that next week the radical church UPC Poroshenko Tomos church might take over the Kiev Lavra as the government of Ukraine Zelenskiy and his Ministers are ignoring the calls of the head of Lavra Metropolite Pavel to continue the contract for the Church service in Svyato Uspebskaya church and TrapeNaya church of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. The radicals from Azov and Pravin Secfor will come into Lavra and try to take control while the regime decides what to with Lavra next.
This is the kind of religious persecution commonly associated with Stalin’s Soviet Union. The potential involvement of the Azov movement in this action is disturbing because the Azov adherents are not Christian. They embrace pagan imagery and practices.
The spiritual leaders of the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, if they genuinely believe in the gospel of Jesus, should be coming together to call for peace and an end to the killing. But history tells us that when it comes to killing, religion takes a back seat to nationalism. Or, even worse, religion becomes an excuse for killing.
I want to take this opportunity to wish all of my readers from around the world a Merry Christmas. You do not have to be a Christian to receive the greeting. In writing this I was reminded of something that I witnessed in the Colon Free Trade Zone in Panama twenty years ago.
First a word about the Colon Free Trade Zone aka CFZ. It is one of the largest free trade zones in the world and sits at the north end of the Panama Canal. Every product imaginable is sold there. It is a distribution center for Central America, South America and the Caribbean Islands. It is a walled city and there are no restaurants or hotels inside — only stores and banks. Oh yeah. The vast majority of the merchants are Jewish or Muslim.
A Jewish merchant by the name of Jose, who sold baby clothing, was in a bind. His business was one of the smaller ones in the CFZ and he had annual revenues of $80 million. He was a rotund fellow with a cardiac condition and traveled regularly to New York to see his doctor (he did not trust the Docs in Panama). Jose’s problem occurred because he teamed up with some other merchants and shipped his products to customers in a “consolidated container” (i.e., a container that contains goods from multiple merchants). When it arrived at its destination, customs authorities discovered cocaine hidden in the container. It was not clear which merchant was guilty.
Jose, terrified he would lose his visa, went to DEA and pleaded with them to audit his business to verify he was not trafficking in cocaine or taking drug money. DEA agreed and recommended that Jose hire my firm (my partner previously headed up DEA’s undercover money laundering operations in New York City). We got the job and me and my partner were given full access to his business.
A few months before getting this job I was in Panama doing a raid on a business that was trafficking in counterfeit Sunbeam products. As I rode with the lawyers towards the CFZ they told me the story of the animosity between the Jews and the Muslims. During the U.S. invasion of Panama, the muslim merchants took to the streets with automatic weapons and the Jewish merchants hid in fear. The muslim merchants controlled the city gates and prevented U.S. troops from entering.
So, a few months later, my partner and I are auditing Jose’s business and going through his real set of books and I noticed he was putting together gift baskets.
“Hey, Jose, what are you doing?”
Jose replied, “Preparing baskets for my muslim neighbors. Tomorrow is Eid.”
“What? I was told that during the U.S. invasion the muslims had weapons and people like you were hiding in fear.”
Jose started laughing. “No, no, no. Yes, the muslims had weapons and they blocked the entrances to the Free Zone with containers. But they weren’t hunting me. They were protecting the city. We were all afraid that the locals would try to loot the Free Zone.”
Strange world. We are told that Muslims and Jews are enemies and cannot get along. Yet, in the Colon Free Trade Zone, these two ethnic religious groups have found a way to live together and to help each other. I do not mean to suggest that the CFZ is a utopia. The men and women who run those businesses are hard nosed capitalists and compete against each other. Yet, they do not let religion become a casus belli.
It is in this spirit that I wish you a Merry Christmas. That memory of a chubby Jewish merchant preparing a gift for his Muslim neighbor as a way of saying thank you is the true meaning of Christmas for me. Doing good to others because you can, not because it is required.
I count myself fortunate that there are so many smart, knowledgeable people reading this blog and taking time to comment. That is the best gift I could ever receive. Thank you.