Montenegro rocked by violent clashes over church independence

Tensions in Montenegro reached fever pitch at the weekend as protesters and police clashed over the inauguration of an orthodox bishop amid continued division over church independence.

A large group barricaded the road from the capital Podgorica to the city of Cetinje on Saturday, trying to prevent the patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), Porfirije, and Bishop Joanikije from attending the latter’s inauguration as the new head (known as a metropolitan) of the Montenegrin branch of the SOC.

On Sunday morning in Cetinje, hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police who used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Around 40 citizens and 20 policemen were injured, according to local media.

The metropolitan and the patriarch had to be flown into Cetinje on Sunday by military helicopter, under heavy police protection. Scenes of the church delegation leaving the helicopter covered by an anti-bullet kevlar blanket quickly swept the region.

“These incidents are the result of a clear weaponization and politicization of the church on both sides,” said former ambassador to NATO and political scientist Vesko Garčević.

The small Balkan country has been split over the role of the church for almost two years since the previous government led by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) agreed to transfer church property from the SOC to the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, whose independence is not recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the main Eastern Orthodox authority.

DPS lost an election last August to current Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić’s For the Future of Montenegro bloc, but the tensions have not subsided.

“I call, again, on all socio-political actors to maintain peace, which is the most valuable thing now,” Krivokapić said in a tweet on Saturday. The PM, whose election success was largely based on rallying against an independent Montenegrin church, has significantly toned down his nationalist rhetoric in the past year, leading him to lose the support of many hardliners.

Montenegro was the last former Yugoslav republic to split from Serbia, with which it shared a government until 2006. Some on the Serbian side claim that the church split was a political move to put distance between the two countries.

Others — notably President Milo Đukanović, who is also head of the DPS — claim the church split allowed Montenegro to emerge from Serbia’s shadow.

Montenegro is less ethnically homogenous than its neighbors. In the last census in 2011, 45 percent of the population declared themselves ethnic Montenegrin, while 28 percent said they were ethnic Serbs. The rest are part of minorities such as ethnic Albanians and Bosniaks.

“The concept of a multiethnic Montenegro of its citizens, which was strong at the moment when the country declared independence, is now significantly weakened by people being tied to one church over another,” said Garčević.

The SOC continues to own most church property in Montenegro, including the Monastery of St Basil, dedicated to the country’s most revered saint. The decision to hold the ceremony in Cetinje, which was once the royal seat of the country and the center of its independence efforts, was seen as a provocation and a show of force by the SOC.

The last metropolitan, Amfilohije, who passed away in October last year due to COVID-19, was inaugurated in Cetinje in 1991. At the time, Serbian warlord Željko Ražnatović Arkan was guarding the Monastery of St Basil and Amfilohije admitted being friends with Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadžić, who was later convicted of genocide.

“Unfortunately, the violent means used by the protesters in Cetinje overshadowed the legitimate reasons and revulsion felt by people in Montenegro with the inauguration being held in Cetinje,” said Garčević.

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