(Reuters) - The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose backing for Moscow's "special military operation" in Ukraine has dismayed many fellow Christians, said on Saturday he hoped it would end quickly but again did not condemn it.
At an outdoor service at Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral on the eve of Orthodox Easter, Patriarch Kirill splashed holy water onto loaves of colourfully decorated Easter bread known as kulichi and said many of them would be sent to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
"God grant that this Easter gift helps those who are involved in this difficult conflict to calm their hearts, minds, souls, so that internecine strife ends as soon as possible and the long-awaited peace reigns, and with it the piety of people and faith may be strengthened," he said.
Patriarch Kirill, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has previously made statements backing Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine, a position that has splintered the worldwide Orthodox Church.
While speaking on Saturday of the need for reconciliation, he did not question or criticise the military campaign.
"May the Lord first of all reconcile our people in Ukraine, in Donbas, where blood is still being shed," said Kirill, who like Putin believes Russians and Ukrainians are essentially one people.
"May the Lord heal the wounds inflicted on people, on the families that have lost their breadwinners, on the parents who have lost their children and on the children who have lost their parents."
The patriarch's support for Russia's military campaign, in which thousands of soldiers and Ukrainian civilians have been killed, has angered some within the Russian Orthodox Church as well as in churches abroad linked to the Moscow Patriarchate.
Russia says it is carrying out a special military operation in Ukraine aimed at demilitarising and "denazifying" the country. Ukraine and the West reject that as a baseless pretext.
Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, has dropped plans to meet with Kirill in June.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Timothy Heritage)