Montenegro: The clash of Church and State over Law on Religious Freedoms

  • Marija Kadovic
  • 20.2.2020 12:28

The situation in the Balkans is heating up. Montenegro, a small Adriatic state with a population of 620,000 people, is being put under internal and external pressure that is shaking up the whole region. Tensions rose after the government passed the new Montenegrin Law on Religious Freedoms in December last year despite fierce objection from the pro-Serbian opposition parties and the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC). Church-led large-scale protests have been held since the legislation was adopted, not only in Montenegro but also in the neighbouring countries where Orthodox Serbs live.

After gaining independence through a referendum that peacefully separated it from a union with Serbia, Montenegro is now seeking autocephaly - spiritual independence - for its local Church, viewed as a schism by the Serbian Orthodox. Many citizens who declare themselves followers of the Serbian Orthodox Church are supporting the Church in its opposition to the law, which in their opinion enables authorities to seize the Church’s property. This new law that, despite protests, came into the force on the 6th of January requires religious groups to prove ownership on the buildings, including churches and monasteries before 1918, when Montenegro became a part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Two years after Montenegro became part of the state, which would later be renamed Yugoslavia, the ruling regent ended the Montenegrin autocephalous church, placing it under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox, losing all of its property in the process. Therefore, the new law is returning the property that once belonged to the independent Kingdom of Montenegro to its primary owner, the state. Authorities ensure that this would not affect the pre-existing rights of the religious community to use the property.


The protection that NATO is providing to its members is essential for the ruling party, mainly because of the support that the Serbian Orthodox Church has from Serbia, Russia and Republika Srpska.


President of Montenegro Milo Djukanović waited to join the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) before adopting this sensitive law. The protection that NATO is providing to its members is essential for the ruling party, mainly because of the support that the Serbian Orthodox Church has from Serbia, Russia and Republika Srpska. Protesters led by Orthodox priests are demanding that the law be annulled saying that Serbs in Montenegro are being jeopardized. These complaints are similar to the allegations of Serbs being mistreated in the neighbouring countries that fueled the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Although authorities probably expected some opposition, the size and frequency of protests that are spreading throughout the country meet the government unprepared.

Law on Religious Freedoms, which the government has been working on since 2014 was approved by the Venice Commission and is in line with the European acquis. This law is referring not only to the Serbian Orthodox Church but also to the Islamic community and the Catholic Church that accepted the bill. The Serbian Orthodox Church is rejecting the law because of two reasons. First, it does not agree with the current politics in Montenegro, and it refuses to register and respect the Montenegrin order of law. It believes that it is above the state and openly rejects the existence of the state in which it operates. Second, it wants to protect the material and other properties that it poses, but to do that it needs to provide written proof of ownership. Currently, SOC is not registered in Montenegro, does not pay taxes and authorities are not familiar with how many priests are actively serving in the country. After the law is enacted, even if they don’t prove the ownership over all properties they will not be forced out of the country. However, it will contribute to its functionality and the authorities will get greater oversight of it.


The Serbian Orthodox Church enjoys the support of the Serbian Government, which did not look favourably on Montenegro’s approval of the independence of Kosovo and its joining of NATO.


This law attracted the attention of the authorities in Serbia, which suddenly think that they are entitled to decide on the organization of another independent state. The Serbian Orthodox Church enjoys the support of the Serbian Government, which did not look favourably on Montenegro’s approval of the independence of Kosovo and its joining of NATO. The authorities of Serbia consider this law to be a hostile measure towards the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian population in Montenegro. Their interference in Montenegro’s internal affairs is explained by the protection of its diaspora. As a result of this, Serbian officials are creating an atmosphere of anti-Montenegrin hysteria. Except for the fact that the Serbian Government sent the plane to bring the leaders of the pro-Serbian opposition party DF, which were convicted for the state coup in 2016, to Belgrade to consult about further actions, they got a blessing from the Serbian patriarch Irinej to prevent that law being enacted even if they need to use violence. In Belgrade, Serbs tried to burn the Montenegrin flag, and no one was punished for those crimes. Also, Serbian media are actively spreading hatred towards Montenegro, which is similar to the incitement to war from the 90s. However, Serbia is not taking an aggressive approach towards Montenegro only because it did not come to terms with the fact that Montenegro is an independent state, but because they are afraid of the impact that this law can have on the position of the SOC in Kosovo, as well as in the whole region. 


For years, Russia has been operating from Serbia against Montenegro.


Not only is Serbia supporting Serbian Orthodox Church and “endangered Serbs”, but the backup is also coming from Russia. For years, Russia has been operating from Serbia against Montenegro, which was best seen during the Russian supported state coup in 2016 when Montenegro was on the verge of joining NATO. Russia is still affected by the fact that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church managed to gain independence from the Russian Orthodox Church by the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and they are afraid that the same thing will happen in Montenegro. The SOC has close relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, and they are often considered to be a foreign policy tool of the Russian state with its nationalist and state-oriented policies. For Russia, the SOC is an essential ally. Russia can spread its influence through it not only in Serbia but also in Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia since Orthodox communities in these countries are also historically tied to the SOC. Therefore, the SOC plays a vital role for Russia, so if this law passes and other countries start following the example of Montenegro and reduce the influence of SOC, its power in the Balkan will dramatically drop, and Serbia will remain its only ally in the Balkans. 

Pro-Serbian protests are also supported by pro-Kremlin Russian bikers group the Night Wolves. Source: Wikimedia Commons

All these events in Montenegro are happening just in time for the elections. With the elections right behind the corner, many bring up the question of the capability of president Milo Djukanovic, who has ruled much longer than Putin, to remain in power and continue its three-decades-long rule. Despite the number of people who are attending protests and requesting cancellation of the law, the ruling party still enjoys the support of those who declare themselves as Montenegrins and that in the 2006 referendum voted for independence. However, there is a great possibility that the government would fall if they show weakness and decide to withdraw the law. 

Despite the many accusations regarding the law that the Montenegrin parliament adopted, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission welcomed the draft law as “it brings important positive changes to the existing, out-dated legislation”. The government adopted the proposal after consultation with the Venice Commission. Also, the international community is currently keeping a distance from this problem that is affecting the whole region. The European Union, which both Montenegro and Serbia aspire to join, is keeping its distance from this problem. Although it encourages dialogue between nations and offers its help, the EU representatives believe that there is nothing they could do regarding this matterOnce again, the EU decided to stay out of problems in the Balkans, and prefer instead to wait and watch until they escalate.

About author: Marija Kadovic


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