Thousands of Montenegrin Serbs protested on January 2 and 3 against the new law on religious communities in the country, which they say threatens the rights of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC).
Protest marches were held in Podgorica, Herceg Novi, and northern Montenegro, where the majority of the population is considered Serb.
The religious procession in the capital was led by Montenegrin bishop Amfilohije, a fierce critic of the authorities in both Montenegro and Serbia.
Montenegrin media reported that several thousand people had gathered infront of a local monastery in the northern Montenegrin town of Berane to protest the law. The protest included the mayor of the city and local officials who are members of opposition Serb parties (Berane is the only city controlled by the opposition in the country).
Official Belgrade shares SOC’s concerns about the implications of the new religious law.
The Montenegrin Orthodox Church is not autocephalous, and some media outlets in Serbia cite Bartholomew I, the current Archbishop of Constantinople and the Ecumenical Patriarch, that he will never recognize the independence of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church.
Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said on Friday (03.01) that his country faces another challenge to its independence and freedom following attacks on Montenegrin diplomatic services in Belgrade and Ljubljana and an attempt to burn the state flag.
Markovic’s reaction comes as a result of a protest outside the Montenegrin embassy in Belgrade on 02.01 evening, organized by fans of the Red Star sports club. After a basketball game against German Bayern, during which supporters chanted slogans against Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, fans headed to the Montenegrin embassy, where they tried to burn a Montenegrin flag with pyrotechnics.
Before them, students from the Belgrade Law Faculty, as well as members of the Serbian nationalist movement “Zavetnici”, also protested outside the embassy.
Similar incidents have been reported at other Montenegrin consulates in Serbia and Slovenia, which Podgorica’s foreign ministry described as “vandalism”.
Montenegro’s Foreign Ministry summoned Serbia’s ambassador to Podgorica, Vladimir Bozovic, for “prolonged attacks on the Montenegrin embassy in Belgrade and the country’s flag”, but the Serbian ambassador declined to accept the protest note.
In the meantime, the supreme body of the SOC in Montenegro is distancing itself from any possible incidents, which it said has information can be arranged on Christmas Eve (06.01) and Christmas (07.01).
In addition, about 100 representatives of the Serbian academic community and civic activists, including Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts chair Vladimir Kostic, called for changes to the Religious Freedom Act as soon as possible, as well as for a dialogue between the state and representatives of all traditional religious communities in Montenegro. They propose that the Montenegrin state and the SOC conclude a treaty that will permanently resolve the issue of the functioning of the SOC in Montenegro.
The academicians argue that the law creates a legal framework for the nationalization of property of traditional religious communities and that itdirectly encroaches on property rights guaranteed by the Montenegrin Constitution.
As a result of the tensions, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (04.01) decided not to make a private visit to Montenegro on Christmas Eve, saying that Patriarch Irenaeus agreed and supported him in this regard. “I do not want to give an alibi to the Montenegrin authorities to accuse Serbia that this is an attack on Montenegro’s independence and constitutional order. We respect Montenegro’s independence and constitutional order and have never threatened it in any way nor are we interested in that”, said Vucic.
“I do not believe in the conflict between the presidents of Montenegro and Serbia, Milo Djukanovic and Aleksandar Vucic, it is suspected that the whole situation and tensions that emerged were prepared in the kitchen of Vladimir (Beba) Popovic, who is a political advisor to both Djukanovic and Vucic”, commented on recent developments in Montenegro and Serbia the political analyst Slobodan Stojanovic. “I cannot say for sure that everything was staged, time will tell, but there are reasons to think so.” He added that “regional populists start spreading ethnic hatred when they need to raise ratings.”