Putin visits shelter for Ukrainians fleeing conflict on Orthodox Christmas

MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin visited a shelter for families fleeing the conflict in east Ukraine on Orthodox Christmas on Wednesday, while the Orthodox Patriarch who heads churches in Russia and Ukraine said his heart was with Ukraine's people.

Putin, who usually celebrates Christmas by attending a midnight service outside Moscow, visited a village church that runs a refugee centre that has taken in almost 1,000 people fleeing the conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine.

Millions of Orthodox believers in both Russia and Ukraine celebrate Christmas Day on January 7, following the old-style Julian calendar.

Wearing a jumper and open-necked shirt, Putin lit a candle in a church packed with women and children in headscarves in a village outside the city of Voronezh, about 290 miles(460 kilometres) south of Moscow.

He also toured a shelter for families run by the village's church, which has taken in 980 people from Donbass since the start of the conflict and is currently giving refuge to more than 90 people, TASS news agency reported.

In a Christmas message to Orthodox Christians, Putin said that Christian spiritual traditions and ideals of love and mercy "serve to unite the people and to help it survive in times of harsh troubles." Patriarch Kirill in a video address aired on an Orthodox television channel said that he wanted to "speak particularly to our Ukrainian flock, to those whose families have faced the harsh consequences of the conflict. May God help you!" "My heart is with the people of Ukraine," the Patriarch added. "May the Lord reconcile people in Ukraine and in the whole world." The Moscow-based Patriarch heads dioceses in both Russia and Ukraine.

Orthodox Christmas Eve saw three Ukrainian troops killed in clashes. In the rebel-occupied city of Donetsk, midnight services were cancelled due to a curfew.