Istanbul: To retrieve crucifixes in ceremonies celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ, Orthodox Christian worshippers across southern and eastern Europe plunged into cold water.    

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 here yesterday.
   
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.
   
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, yesterday 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.

(Agencies)