Montenegrins protest inauguration of new Serbian church head

·2 min read

CETINJE, Montenegro (AP) — Several thousand people demonstrated on Sunday in Montenegro over the planned inauguration of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the small Balkan state.

Ethic tensions have soared over the scheduled ceremony for Metropolitan Bishop Joanikije II. The protesters in Montenegro’s former capital, Cetinje, where the Sept. 5 inauguration is to take place, waved Montenegrin flags and chanted slogans against the country's government, accusing it of being pro-Serb.

Hundreds of police officers were deployed in the city, and the U.S. Embassy warned Americans to avoid the protest.

Montenegro declared independence from the much larger Serbia in 2006. The country is deeply split between residents who consider themselves Montenegrins and those who deny the existence of the Montenegrin nation. About 30% of the country's population of 600,000 identifies as Serb.

Joanikije II is to succeed the Serbian church's previous most senior cleric in Montenegro, Metropolian Bishop Amfilohije, who died in October after contracting the coronavirus. The inauguration ceremony is set for the Cetinje Monastery which is considered the historic cradle of Montenegrin statehood.

Protest leaders said they do not oppose the naming of a new church leader but are against his enthronement in a shrine which symbolizes Montenegro's centuries-old struggle for sovereignty and independence.

“We will not allow further desecration of Montenegrin shrines by those who don’t recognize Montenegro as a state and Montenegrins as a nation,” Predrag Vusurovic, one of the protest organizers, told the crowd.

Despite calls to respect COVID-19 health measures, most of the protesters did not wear masks while chanting “treason” and accusing the government of setting the stage for the “occupation” of Montenegro by Serbia.

The Serbian Orthodox Church, the largest religious institution in Montenegro, played a key role in a movement that helped defeat a long-ruling pro-Western government last year. The church led months of protests against alleged plans by that government to take away its property, which Montenegrin officials denied.

The former government had steered Montenegro away from Serbian as well as Russian influence. The Adriatic nation joined NATO in 2017 and is seeking European Union membership.

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Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.

Predrag Milic, The Associated Press

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