Montenegro church property law passes after Parliament chaos

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Police officers guard the parliament building in Podgorica, Montenegro, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2019, during a protest against a proposed law regarding religious communities and property. The Serbian Orthodox Church says the law will strip it of its property, including medieval monasteries and churches. The government has denied that. (AP Photo/Risto Bozovic)

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegro’s Parliament adopted a contested law on religious rights Friday after chaotic scenes that saw the detention of all pro-Serb opposition lawmakers.

The vote followed nationwide protests by supporters of the Serbian Orthodox Church who said the law would strip the church of its property, including medieval monasteries and churches. The government has denied that.

Trying to block a vote, the pro-Serb lawmakers hurled what appeared to be a tear gas canister or a firecracker and tried to destroy microphones in the Parliament hall. Plainclothes police officers wearing gas masks intervened, detaining 22 people, including 17 opposition lawmakers.

All but three of the lawmakers were released. The three are suspected of attacking the Parliament speaker and preventing him from performing his job, police said.

Two of the arrested lawmakers were sentenced in May to five years in prison for taking part in an alleged Russian-orchestrated coup attempt in 2016 against Montenegro’s then-prime minister and current pro-Western president, Milo Djukanovic. The two, Andrija Mandic and Ivan Knezevic, remained free pending their appeals.

“We are ready to die for our church, and that’s what we are demonstrating tonight,” Mandic said during the tumultuous Parliament session.

The law, approved by 45 ruling coalition lawmakers, says religious communities with property need to produce evidence of ownership from before 1918, when Montenegro joined a Serb-led Balkan kingdom and lost its independence.

In neighboring Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic said he was concerned but hoped that tensions will ease and “our church’s holy sights will be preserved.” Vucic promised to help the Serbian church in Montenegro “without burning bridges.”

Also Friday, a brief brawl erupted in the Serbian parliament when nationalist opposition lawmakers held up banners criticizing what they called a lack of response from Serbia to the events in Montenegro.

The Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro described the law as “discriminatory and unconstitutional.” Patriarch Irinej, the head of the church, said Montenegrin authorities “must immediately stop with the brutal terror against the church, its priests and followers.”

The church on Friday accused Montenegrin authorities of “inciting divisions and hatred.” It added in a statement that “thanks to this, the Orthodox Christian faithful in Montenegro are facing one of the saddest Christmases in recent history.” Some Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.

Montenegro’s population of around 620,000 is predominantly Orthodox Christian and the main church is the Serbian Orthodox Church. A separate Montenegrin Orthodox Church isn’t recognized by other Orthodox Christian churches.

President Djukanovic has accused the Serbian Orthodox Church of promoting pro-Serb policies and seeking to undermine the country’s statehood since it split from much larger Serbia in 2006.

Montenegrins remain divided over whether the small Adriatic state should foster close ties with Serbia. About 30% of Montenegro’s population identify as Serbs and were mostly against the split from Serbia.

Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said the country has the power to prevent more rioting: “I believe in peace in Montenegro.”

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