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Montenegrin government clashes with Orthodox Church

May 17, 2020

A row between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the state of Montenegro has escalated and triggered protests. At one stage, a bishop and eight priests were arrested. They have been released, but tensions remain.

Serbian Orthodox priests and supporters walk down the street on May 12
Image: DW/D. Savović

The coronavirus pandemic has not yet been declared over in Montenegro and numerous restrictions aimed at slowing its spread remain in place. Still, the country finds itself where it was two months ago, before the virus hit: in the grips of a quarrel between the state and the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) over church property. 

The trigger for the latest row was a procession in Niksic, Montenegro's second-largest city, on May 12. Because it had not been approved, Niksic Bishop Joanikije and eight other priests were arrested, accused of having endangered people's health during the pandemic.

The gathering defied a ban issued by the health authority on large public gatherings, which will likely not be allowed for some time to come.

Joanikije defended himself by saying that he had not asked the faithful to stage the procession but that they had spontaneously come together.

Supporters of the Serbian Orthodox Church take part in a procession in Montenegro
Montenegrin supporters of the Serbian Orthodox Church took part in a procession on May 12 despite the coronavirus pandemic and a ban on public gatheringsImage: DW/Z. Vuksanović

In fact, lawmakers from the right-wing populist opposition party Democratic Front (DF) had called for the event in speeches in parliament. They now face criminal charges. These parliamentarians have repeatedly expressed their support for the SPC.

Following the clergy members' arrests, clashes took place between SPC supporters and police in several cities. Twenty-six police officers were injured, numerous members of the public were beaten and 50 people were detained.

Joanikije and the other priests have since been released from their 72-hour provisional detention — to the cheers of their supporters. The religious leaders, however, still face prosecution.

An endless crisis

The dispute between the Montenegrin state and the SPC began late last year. The bone of contention is a clause in a new law on religious freedom that the Montenegrin parliament passed at the end of December. It stipulates that all objects and real estate currently belonging to the SPC in Montenegro should be transferred to the state if the church fails to prove that these assets were in its possession before 1918.

The SPC is convinced the goal is to take numerous monasteries and churches away from it. At recent protests, the church's supporters have been chanting: "We won't give up our sacred sites!"

Other processions and protests had taken place before May, but those confrontations were never as fierce as they are now. amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

People in Podgorica protest against the new religious law
The church protested in Podgorica against the new law as early as December 2019Image: Reuters/S.Vasiljevic

Montenegro is deeply divided over the issue of national identity. While some of the more than 600,000 Montenegrins see themselves as belonging to a larger Serbian nation, the others consider themselves members of an independent Montenegrin people and support their own Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which is not officially recognized by other Orthodox churches.

Read more: What is the Orthodox Church?

Perilous situation

"This escalation has intensified the existing tensions in society," political analyst Sergei Sekulovic told DW. "It's hard to say at the moment what will happen."

Journalist Vladan Zugic said he thinks the situation does not look good and definitively could get worse. Montenegro is on edge over parliamentary elections to be held before the end of this year, and a new census is to be carried out at the start of next year. In addition, the severe economic consequences of the coronavirus will soon become apparent in Montenegro, especially if the tourist season falls flat, as is currently expected.

Despite all this, both sides are sticking to their positions. "The government is turning a blind eye to many problems that exist in Montenegro, and part of the opposition is still in favor of policies from the 1990s," Zugic said.

Bishop Amfilohije carries church paraphernalia
Bishop Amfilohije said the procession had been a spontaneous eventImage: picture-alliance/AA/M. Vujovic

The breakup of the former Yugoslavia in 1992 led to years of ethnic warfare. As various states declared independence, Montenegro formed a federation with Serbia that lasted until 2006, when Montenegrins narrowly voted for their own independence in a referendum.

"Experience has shown that the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS) profits most from [exploiting these tensions], along with the radical part of the opposition, with the DF at its head," the journalist added.

The first reactions following the arrests of the clergy suggested that the situation is not likely to calm down anytime soon.

The prime minister, Dusko Markovic, justified the actions of security forces by claiming that Montenegro had been attacked by extremists and that the Serbian Orthodox Church was "endangering public health under the pretext of preserving religious freedom." 

But the head of the church in Montenegro, Archbishop Amfilohije, accused the police of having beaten up children during the protests.

Parliamentary elections loom

Observers are sure that the recent escalation is tied to the upcoming parliamentary elections.

"The opposition Democratic Front wants to make itself out to be the 'guardian of the sacred sites,' because up to now, the church has been one leading these protests," Zugic said. "The DF is trying to depict itself as the true protector of all that is Serbian in Montenegro."

The ruling socialists, in turn, want to prevent the protest-processions organized by the church because their voters also include quite a few faithful who support the SPC.

"The government is trying to profit from its successful fight against the coronavirus. Its message is: We are the only one who can guarantee the security and the health of the population," said political analyst Sekulovic.

"It's possible that both sides will conclude that it would be better to compete in the elections in an atmosphere of strong social polarization," Sekulovic added.

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Head shot of a man (Zoran Arbutina) with gray hair and a beard
Zoran Arbutina Editor, writer, reporter