14 January 2020, The Tablet

Serbs protest as new religion law takes force

Serbs protest as new religion law takes force

Church of Our Lady of the Rocks on an islet in the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro
Keith Levit/Zuma Press/PA Images

Montenegro’s controversial new religion law came into effect on Monday, and gives the Property Directorate a year – until January 8, 2021 – to compile a register of all religious sites in the country.

The hotly disputed law, which has ignited mass protests, includes a register of all religious buildings and sites that authorities say were owned by the independent kingdom of Montenegro before it became part of the Serb-dominated Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, later renamed Yugoslavia.

Under the law, religious communities must provide clear evidence of ownership in order to retain their properties, a provision that the Serbian Orthodox Church – the largest faith group in the country – says is designed to strip it of its holdings. 

Once the register of sacred sites is complete, the Property Directorate may submit requests to register some of these objects as state property, and inform the religious community about that request.

Protests against the law have been motivated by a fear that the pro-Western government – whose relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church are poor – will use it to dispute the Church’s assets and so weaken its influence.

Meanwhile, some elements in the Church are keen to downplay talk of violent conflict. The Coordinator of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s Legal Council, Velibor Dzomic, on Tuesday said the Church does not see itself as above the legal order in Montenegro.

“Nobody is starting a war here. I believe that dialogue should be opened urgently, in a professional, responsible manner, to bring key issues such as these property disputes to an exclusive legal resolution,” Dzomic told Prva television on Tuesday.

Since parliament adopted the law on 27 December, tens of thousands of Serbian Church priests and believers have protested in Montenegro almost every night, demanding that the government withdraw the law. 

The Council of Serbian bishops in Montenegro announced a three-day break in demonstrations over Orthodox Christmas, after which they called for peaceful processions to be held twice a week in towns and cities until the law is withdrawn. 

Church representatives have meanwhile announced appeals to international organisations and the Constitutional Court of Montenegro over the law.

Elsewhere in Orthodoxy, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill is to visit Vienna at the end of May, according to the Russian embassy in Vienna. “Preparations for the visit have begun”, an embassy spokeswoman told the German Catholic press agency KNA on 10 January. For the moment, it was not possible to disclose further details, she said.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna is held in high respect by the Orthodox Churches. The visit comes amid tensions over Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s granting of self-rule or autocephaly to the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

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