Violent religious riots expose Montenegro’s divides over links to Serbia
Demonstrators threw stones at police, set up blockades of tyres and large rocks and broke down fences around the monastery in the old capital, Cetinje, which is due to host Sunday’s ceremony.
Thousands rallied in August in Cetinje, demanding the inauguration be held elsewhere but the church refused to change the plans.
Sunday’s protesters, some firing pistols into the air, set fire to car tyres at a blockade to prevent police from breaking through.
Shouts of “This is not Serbia!” and “Long live Montenegro” were heard.
The union with Serbia ended in 2006 and pro-independence Montenegrins call for a separate Orthodox church.
Joanikije’s predecessor as the Montenegrin church leader, Amfilohije, died last October from COVID-19.
The Serbian Orthodox Church, which is Montenegro’s biggest religious organisation, has come under fire from President Milo Djukanovic who claims it is trying to undermine the tiny ex-Yugoslav republic’s independence and extend Belgrade’s influence.
Djukanovic, the architect of the state’s independence from Serbia, called on protesters to disrupt the enthronement of Joanikije II as the Metropolitan of Montenegro and Archbishop of Cetinje.
“We’re on the barricades today because we’re fed up with Belgrade denying our nation and telling us what are our religious rights,” Andjela Ivanovic, a demonstrator, told Reuters. “All religious objects built in Montenegro belong to people here and to the state of Montenegro.”
The president’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) was defeated in last year’s parliamentary election after the party passed legislation to allow the authorities to claim the church’s property.
The church then campaigned for the opposition, driving the DPS from office for the first time since the 1990s.
A parallel, pro-Serb gathering in the capital, Podgorica, saw thousands greeting Serbian Patriarch Porfirije and Metropolitan Joanikije II ahead of Sunday’s inauguration.
To underline the political polarisation in Montenegrin politics, Djukanovic visited Cetinje while the pro-Serb Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic went to the rally in Podgorica.
Djukanovic said he will not take sides in the dispute but praised the Cetinje protesters for guarding Montenegro against creeping Serb influence through religious institutions.
“We need to protect our freedom and sovereignty. “Any nationally responsible individual naturally resists,” he told state-run RTCG.
About a third of Montenegro’s 630,000 population identified as ethnic Serbs in the latest census. A majority of Montenegrins are members of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Sunday’s anti-Serb protests. Picture credit: YouTube