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(AP) -- Armenians lit candles and attended services to mark their Christmas holiday Thursday as the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church urged believers to resist violence, terrorism and the threat of war.

Catholicos Garegin II led Christmas services at the Echmiadzin Cathedral outside the capital, Yerevan. President Robert Kocharian and other top government officials attended.

Garegin told worshippers "to banish hate from the heart" and "to resist violence and terrorism and the threat of war." Later Thursday, after the Christmas liturgy, priests were to conduct a rite known as the Blessing of the Water, which symbolizes the baptism of Jesus Christ in the river Jordan.

"Only the Armenian Church has maintained the ancient tradition of celebrating the birth of Christ and the Epiphany on one day," a statement from the church said.

The Armenian Church celebrates Christmas on January 6, the date originally used by all Christians. In the fourth century, Christians in the Roman Empire began celebrating on December 25 to override a pagan winter solstice festival on the same day, but the Armenian church left Christmas where it was.

Four years ago, Armenia celebrated its 1,700th anniversary as a Christian country. In 301, it became the first state to make Christianity the official religion.

(Photolur photo)
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