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Church-State flare-up in Montenegro

28 August 2020

Serbian Orthodox and national leaders swap accusations

PA

Metropolitan Amfilohije at Ostrog Monastery, Niksic, in May

Metropolitan Amfilohije at Ostrog Monastery, Niksic, in May

A SENIOR Serbian Orthodox priest has urged Anglicans to back his Church in a struggle against the pro-Western government of Montenegro, which has adamantly denied Orthodox accusations of discrimination and illegality.

“Faiths across the globe are being challenged — this threat is now moving closer, as dark clouds threaten in Europe,” the Episcopal Dean and information officer for the eparchy of Budimlja and Nikšic, Fr Evstatije Dragojevic, said.

“Moves by the government against my Church — the Serbian Orthodox Church — have provoked a crisis. What is happening in our tiny country discards the modern European concepts of fairness and law. It could set an alarming precedent for larger countries in Europe.”

The priest sent the appeal to the Church Times ahead of the parliamentary elections in Montenegro on Sunday, which could decide the fate of a law on religious associations.

He said that his Church, one of the world’s oldest, still exercised ministry in the former Yugoslavia, and was “under attack” as the Montenegrin government “looked for new revenue streams” by claiming its properties.

Allegations of persecution were rejected, however, by the Montenegrin government, which has pledged to remain “an open and reliable partner” to all Churches.

“We have no intention of eliminating the Serbian Orthodox Church from this country, nor is this law directed against the Church — at confiscating its property or changing its status,” the Prime Minister, Duško Markovic, told the parliament in Podgorica in July.

“Our state has an obligation to regulate freedom of religion in line with the highest standards of European democracies. We have tried with great patience and tolerance to clarify any doubts about the new law with Serbian Orthodox leaders.”

Incorporated into Yugoslavia after the First World War, after 70 years of independence, Montenegro seceded from a union with Serbia in 2006 after a referendum, opening accession talks with the European Union in 2012, and joining NATO in 2017.

The centre-left government of President Milo Djukanovic has backed the re-establishment of a pre-1918 Montenegrin Orthodox Church, currently headed by Miraš Dedeic, which has gained ground as a counter to Serbian influence but has not so far been recognised by other Orthodox denominations.

The December 2019 law requires the Serbian Church to prove ownership of buildings and estates predating 1918, or risk their transferral to the state under a historicalproperty register.

The law sparked protests by the Serbian Orthodox Church, which claims that the loyalty of 80 per cent of Montenegro’s 628,000 citizens, and a warning in May of “civil war” from its 83-year-old leader, Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro & the Littoral, who was detained with other clergy for mass rallies in violation of coronavirus restrictions.

Visiting Moscow this June, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, said that the Serbian Orthodox Church was “in jeopardy” in Montenegro, and that he had requested Russian help in the dispute.

Allegations of repression were rejected by President Djukanovic, who, in a TV interview, accused the Orthodox Church of supporting “Greater Serbian nationalism”, and insisted that its assets could no longer be “subsidised with public funds”.

In mid-August, Montenegrin police confirmed that they had charged at least 70 Serbian Orthodox protesters for displaying “the flag of another country” during demonstrations, and others for public-order offences and violations of Covid-19 regulations.

The country’s Foreign Ministry also dismissed claims of “worldwide Orthodox vulnerability”, and accused Serbian and Russian leaders of seeking to reverse Montenegro’s “orientation towards the Euro-Atlantic family of developed liberal democracies”.

In his statement to the Church Times, Fr Dragojevic said that “trappings of modernity” in Montenegro masked a “corruption of basic values”, and that the law would be enforced by “government place-men” with no right of appeal, and extend to a general assault on property rights, the rule of law, and religious freedom.

“The consequences do not bear thinking about,” he said. “We fear it will undoubtedly involve vandalism and destruction of cultural and spiritual artefacts, and the selling off of land for redevelopment to build money-spinning hotels and tourist facilities.”

This was also denied by the Montenegrin government, however, which said that Orthodox leaders had rejected its offer to amend the law during an “expert dialogue” at the end of last month, as well as its proposals to have the law scrutinised by the country’s Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights.

“The hope remains that, in some future period, the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro will reconsider its legal and political arguments, as well as its place in a democratic society,” the Deputy Prime Minister of Montenegro, Zoran Pažin, told a press conference.

Serbian Orthodox leaders have urged voters to withhold support in Sunday’s election from Djukanovic’s governing Democratic Party of Socialists, which has accused the opposition Democratic Front of instigating and exploiting protests against the religion law.

In his statement, Fr Dragojevic said that more than 300 Montenegrin lawyers had now signed a petition labelling the “unconstitutional” law a breach of human rights, and that “politicians across party divides” in Britain had urged Boris Johnson’s Government to impose sanctions.

“I appeal to our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Church for your support,” the Fr Dragojevic said. “Over the centuries, our Church has faced persecution from the Ottoman caliphate to communist Yugoslavia. Today, we face a different threat. . . Yet like our Lord, and with your support, we can rise again from these dark times.”

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