Earlier this year, the largest protest movement in my country’s history was sustained over months.

Montenegrins came out in their tens of thousands (see above photo) to peacefully protest a new law that persecuted the majority belief system of the country – the Serbian Orthodox Church. That this is happening in a nation home to some of the Holiest sites in the Orthodox tradition is not only tragic, but illegal.

The nub of the matter lies in the law on Freedom of Religion, passed last December. Despite the Church being the registered proprietor of its churches and ecclesiastical property, it must now redemonstrate its ownership before a new administrative procedure. The Church must set out its case not before a regular court, but rather a government body – unlike any other property owner in Montenegro. If the government deems the evidence insufficient, “religious property becomes state property”.

The Magna Carta, issued just four years before the Orthodox Church was established in Montenegro, contains a well know provision that no one can be deprived of property without “a lawful court decision” and the application of “all the rules of the land". Indeed, the Supreme Court of Montenegro has confirmed in five consecutive decisions that a decision on property rights is not the jurisdiction of an administrative body but of a regular court of justice. Accordingly, most saw this new law for what it was: a legal prop – despite breaching the country’s own constitution – to begin a programme of state nationalisation of sacred places. 

After the protests came the repression. Police arrested two of the nation’s highest-ranking clerics, Bishops Amfilohije and Joanikije, as well as dozens of archpriests. Parishioners protesting their arrest were subjected to police brutality. Tear gas engulfed the faithful.  

Though named the ‘Law on Freedom of Religion’, the act in fact only applies to the Orthodox Church. In the years before the passage of the bill, the government signed written agreements with the Roman Catholic Church, Jewish and Islamic communities, and other minority faiths recognising their religion and property in law. Despite being the largest faith in Montenegro, we alone run the risk of having our property confiscated under this new law.

Why is the President doing this? He proclaimed it necessary to “fully establish the cultural and civic identity of our country”. In doing so, he equates the Serbian Orthodox Church with the nation of Serbia, which may sound logical to those outside the region. But the Church has an 800-year-old history that precedes the states of both Montenegro and Serbia; its ministry spreads across the entirety of the Western Balkans – through Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania and Montenegro – and into the world beyond.

In fact, in 1219, the Serbian Orthodox Church established its first diocese – the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral – in modern-day Montenegro; indeed, the nation state takes its name from the diocese. Plastering over this history, the President has sought to create instead a new exclusively national and allegedly Orthodox church: a political religion established by a secular state.

Still, we have no qualms with the presence of another Church. We only object to its growth through seizure of sacred property by administrative fiat, and its claim on our centuries-old heritage. Through hundreds of years of Ottoman occupation, the Serbian Orthodox Church – and its Metropolitanate of Montenegro – kept the flame of Christianity alive in the Western Balkans. It supplied spiritual nourishment under oppressive rulers, whilst providing parallel public administrations for the downtrodden. This inheritance – our identity – should not be sacrificed to satisfy a president’s desire for a national church.

Religious authorities have objected across the spectrum. The archbishop of Constantinople, the first among equals in the Orthodox Church, wrote to the President reminding him that the sole canonically recognised jurisdiction in Montenegro lies under the Serbian Orthodox church. Any seizure of church property would constitute expropriation. Later, Pope Francis asked the Prime Minister to not pass the law without “the highest possible agreement of all religious communities in Montenegro is reached first”.

International bodies struck a similar tone. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, when reviewing the draft law, said the governments should “consider revising the draft law so it becomes compatible with international human rights standards promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief.”

It wasn’t. The Government did not enter into dialogue. No consensus was sought. Instead, the bill was forced through parliament. 17 members of the house opposed to the law were arrested before the vote to ensure it was rubber-stamped.

14 years after regaining independence, Montenegro – a state that has never experienced a change of government through democratic elections – has decided to declare war on the traditional Orthodox Church and its believers. 

The protests only stopped when church leaders halted the gatherings when coronavirus struck. But the discontent remains. The longer government refuses to listen the constitution, the church, or its own people, the stronger the protests will return.  

Dr Vladimir Leposavic is the legal counsel for Orthodox Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral

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