Protests as Montenegro's new Orthodox head inaugurated

Police arrested 14 protesters and about 50 people were injured during clashes Sunday as the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro was inaugurated.

Bishop Joanikije arrived by helicopter under the protection of police who dispersed protesters with tear gas, a day after protesters blocked roads going into the town of Cetinje. 

Cetinje is the headquarters of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), and the decision to anoint Bishop Joanikije as the new Metropolitan of Montenegro at its historic monastery has aggravated ethnic tension in the tiny Balkan state.

Montenegro broke away from Serbia in 2006, but a third of its 620,000 inhabitants identify as Serbs and some deny Montenegro should be a separate entity.

The SPC is the dominant religion in the small state but its opponents accuse it of serving Belgrade’s interests. 

And the government that assumed power at the end of 2020 is accused by its opponents of being too close to the Church.

According to images released by the SPC, Joanikije and Patriarch Porfirije were dropped off by helicopter on the monastery’s lawn and rushed as bells rang. 

– ‘Defending our dignity’ – 

A security perimeter had been set up by police around the 15th-century building to protect the brief enthronement ceremony. 

Police fired tear gas and used sonic cannons to clear the protesters from the monastery.

Protesters had set fire to piles of tyres at at least one roadblock. Some were armed and had fired shots into the air and a few threw stones at police during the clashes. Others sat peacefully in front of the barriers.

In the capital Podgorica meanwhile, Montenegrin Orthodox Christians gathered outside the cathedral to celebrate the inauguration.

During the ceremony, Joanikije vowed to “serve the brotherly reconciliation” of Montenegro, saying that “the divisions have been provoked artificially”.

On Saturday, thousands of protesters used cars or piled up rocks to block roads, with many spending the night huddled around fires to keep warm, an AFP correspondent said. 

“I am here to show my love for the country,” said one protester, Saska Brajovic, 50.

“We are not asking for anything from anyone else, but we are dismissed by the occupying Serbian Church. We are here defending our dignity.”

The protesters are backed by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of President Milo Djukanovic.

The president accused neighbouring Serbia and the SPC of “dismissing Montenegro and Montenegrins, as well as the integrity” of his country.

Djukanovic had been eager to curb the SPC’s clout in Montenegro and build up an independent Orthodox Church.

– ‘Benefits and privileges’ –

But in August 2020 elections the DPS lost — for the first time in three decades — to an opposition bloc led by SPC allies.

Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic, who is close to the Serbian Orthodox Church, has accused Djukanovic of having deliberately stoked the recent tensions for political purposes.

Krivokapic called on Montenegrins “not to give in to the manipulation” of those willing to risk conflict “in order to keep their benefits and privileges”. 

The monastery, where Montenegrin leaders sat for centuries until the end of World War I, is considered by SPC opponents the property of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which remains a small minority and is not recognised by the Orthodox world. 

Metropolitan Joanikije was named to his new post in May, after the death of his predecessor Metropolitan Amfilohije from Covid-19. 

The US embassy called for calm, writing on its Facebook page: “To everyone who supports a multiethnic, inclusive and democratic Montenegro –- we appeal to you to calm the current tensions.”

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