Hundreds of backers of Montenegro’s pro-Serb opposition took to the streets of the capital Podgorica on Thursday (26 December), rallying against a law they say would strip the Serbian Orthodox Church there of its property.
Ahead of a vote on the draft Law on Religious Freedoms, which the parliament adopted in the early hours on Friday, Serbian Orthodox clergy and believers held a service on a packed bridge near parliament, watched by police who had sealed off city centre roads.
Riot police in helmets placed metal barriers along the street in Podgorica to prevent the protesters, including some priests, from reaching the parliament building, where lawmakers debated the bill.
Roads were also closed in a number of areas around the country due to the protests, according to local media. No injuries, however, were reported.
The law envisages that religious communities in the tiny Adriatic state would need to prove property ownership from before 1918, when predominantly Orthodox Christian Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the predecessor of the now-defunct Yugoslavia.
The Serbian Orthodox Church is the biggest church in Montenegro, a country of 620,000 people, while the much smaller Montenegrin Orthodox Church remains unrecognised by other major churches. Overall, the Serbian Orthodox Church has around 12 million followers, mostly in neighbouring Serbia.
Despite the protests, the 81-seat parliament in which the ruling coalition led by the Democratic Party of Socialists of President Milo Djukanovic has a slim majority of three seats, has decided to start debating the law.
The government of Montenegro, which is a European Union membership candidate and a NATO member, has denied it would strip any religious community of its property.
Prime Minister Duško Marković met with Bishop Amfilohije, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, in an attempt to ease tensions, saying there was “no hidden agenda” behind the law.
The EU cautioned Montenegro days earlier to regulate communities “in an inclusive way” and in accordance with international and European human rights standards.
The Serbian church in Montenegro, which owns 66 mainly medieval monasteries, dozens of churches and other real estate there, insists the state wants to impound its assets.
“This law would bring nothing good to anyone,” Predrag Scepanovic, a priest, told protesters.
Montenegro peacefully split from its former federal partner and much larger Serbia in 2006.
Pro-Western Djukanovic, Montenegro’s long-serving leader, has recently accused the Serbian church of promoting pro-Serb policies that are aimed at undermining Montenegrin statehood.