MOSCOW -- Christmas Eve arrived in Moscow Wednesday with a scent of fir and melting candle wax, the ringing of bells and the sounds of choirs chanting the simple, strong harmonies of Byzantine ritual.

Believers overflowed the Church of the Resurrection, a glorious, single-domed cathedral dating to 1629 that is a brief walk from the Kremlin walls.

Russian Orthodox Christmas falls two weeks after celebrations in the West.

Despite the Kremlin's aggressive atheism, worshipers attending Christmas Eve services cut across the barriers of age and class.

Grandmothers on canes walked from a nearby bus stop hand-in-hand with young girls in knitted caps. Bureaucrats still carrying briefcases squeezed in with fur-hatted teen-agers. One woman pulled up in a sleek Mercedes.

There was a small but noticeable KGB presence.

Only a handful of lightbulbs illuminated the dazzling icons in the sanctuary, but no more were needed. The faithful lighted slender candles that were placed before the images of a patron saint and of the Madonna and child. A dozen fir trees were spaced along the walls.

In honor of next June's 1,000th anniversary of the Orthodox Church, state-controlled newspapers have carried a few sympathetic articles about religion, including one detailing bureaucratic obstacles faced by a group of believers who wished to organize a parochial community. But the need for atheist teaching is the more common theme.

As church leaders organize events to celebrate the millennium, unofficial activists pledge to protest the absence of religious liberty and the compliance of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, serving Kremlin wishes, in suppressing freedom of belief.

Soviet statistics on the number of believers are impossible to obtain. However, Western religious groups estimate that up to 60 million can be labeled believers.