Serbian Orthodox Church authorities are reacting angrily to the passage in the Montenegrin Parliament of a law nationalising religious buildings.

Driving the news

“I hope that the Montenegrin authorities will think deeply, because they see the reaction of the people… It is unreasonable what they did, it is a law that no one supports, every normal person is against such a law. Frankly, I did not expect it. I hadn’t expected that they would adopt such a law”, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej said in an interview with the daily Kurir.

The patriarch described the assault by Montenegrin police on the Vicar Bishop of Diocletian Metodije during protests against the law as an “unprecedented act in Europe since the fall of fascism”.

“I pray to the Lord to reason with the people at the helm of Montenegro to end the violence and the abduction of property of the Serbian Church”, Irinej declared.

With regard to the rumours that a similar nationalisation of religious property – which Serbian Orthodox hierarchs view as nothing less than the expropriation of their assets – is being prepared also in Kosovo, Patriarch Irinej said the intentions of Pristina authorities are impossible to predict.

“We cannot know if there are these dishonorable intentions, there are certain assumptions… Some other winds are blowing out there, we will see how it will end”, the Serbian Orthodox head reflected.

Go deeper

Irinej’s personal comments came just a day after the Synod of the Serbian Patriarchate blamed the Montenegrin government for “unprecedentedly deepening the existing divisions and conflicts in Montenegrin society”.

“The Holy Synod of Bishops calls on the government authorities of Montenegro to acknowledge their responsibility for the past and the future decisions and to reconsider their stance on the religious rights and freedoms of their citizens and of the dominant Church in Montenegro”, the Serbian Orthodox bishops said in a statement.

The hierarchs also gave their blessing to “the peaceful Christian resistance” to the new Law on Freedom of Religions or Belief and the Legal Status of Religious Communities, which they said “allows the holy shrines to be desecrated” and opposes “whoever was devoted to God and to the Church and not to any state or government”.

The Serbian Orthodox bishops promised they would continue to “protect religious rights and freedoms”, and at the same time called on all parties concerned “to reopen a comprehensive dialogue on this very important and sensitive issue”.

The big picture

In the meantime, Christmas Eve celebrations were held by Montenegro’s two dueling Orthodox denominations in the Balkan country’s historical capital on January 6 without incident.

Thousands of members of the Serbian and the Montenegrin Orthodox churches – separated by hundreds of police – attended the two ceremonies held just a few hundred meters apart in the small town of Cetinje.

The events – held annually since 1994 – took place this year amid high tension between the two churches after the passage of the controversial legislation that could force the predominant Serbian Orthodox Church to turn over churches and other property to Montenegrin authorities.

The ceremonial burning of the Christmas tree involves a bonfire, blessings, and caroling in celebration of Jesus’s birth.

Similar events will also be held in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, and in the country’s second city, Niksic.

Montenegro’s parliament passed a law on December 27 under which religious communities must prove property ownership from before 1918.

That’s the year when predominantly Orthodox Christian Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes – and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church was subsumed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, losing all of its property in the process.

The law takes effect on January 7.

The Serbian Orthodox Church says the law is aimed at retaking its property and has held a series of protests since the law’s passage, which was preceded by raucous scenes in parliament and the physical removal of members of the opposition.

Serbia and Montenegro were part of a federation until 2006, when Montenegro declared its independence.

The passage of the law has also led to protests in Serbia – including in parliament and at the Montenegrin Embassy – and led to the cancellation of a planned visit to Montenegro by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

Apart from announcing weekly protests on Thursdays and Sundays, the Serbian Orthodox Church hopes the Montenegrin Constitutional Court will rule in its favor and declare the new law on religious property unconstitutional.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said the new law should be viewed as a new beginning of “coexistence and trust and not of separation”.

(With reporting by RFE/RL. Copyright (c) 2019. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036)

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