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Montenegro MPs held after violent protest over religion law

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Podgorica (Montenegro) (AFP)

More than a dozen opposition MPs were detained in Montenegro's parliament Friday after they violently protested a controversial law on religious freedom, which was passed after the group was taken away.

The law has raised tensions in recent weeks between the government and a pro-Serb opposition which is close to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), Montenegro's main religious body.

The most sensitive piece of the legislation is a clause requiring religious communities to prove ownership of properties from before 1918, when Montenegro lost its independence, in order to keep them.

The SPC, which runs hundreds of monasteries on tracts of valuable land throughout the tiny country, has accused the government of trying to appropriate church heritage and purloin its assets.

The ruling party denies this, saying it only wants to sort out ownership rights.

During the dramatic parliamentary debate that started on Thursday and stretched far into the night, opposition MPs from the Democratic Front threatened to take up arms if the law was passed.

After amendments they proposed were rejected, the opposition members hurled a firecracker in the parliament hall, vandalised the building, threw plastic bottles and tried to physically attack other politicians, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.

Eighteen opposition deputies were detained inside the assembly. According to state media reports, they were questioned by police early Friday.

After the protesting MPs were marched away, the law was passed in the early hours with 45 votes in favour.

- Church rivalry -

Prime Minister Dusko Markovic condemned the chaos in the assembly as "irresponsible".

"But I believe that this is a valuable experience and that this kind of incident will not be repeated," he added.

On Thursday evening, Orthodox priests joined a demonstration in Podgorica, where a heavy police presence was deployed.

There were also attempts to block roads in other parts of the country by the opposition's supporters, local media reported.

Montenegro was part of the same country as Serbia for nearly 90 years until its independence in 2006, and relations between the neighbours remain complicated.

The SPC is still the official Orthodox church in the country, where nearly 72 percent of Montenegro's population of 620,000 adhere to the faith.

But Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic, has called for the "renewal" of the independent Montenegrin Church, setting off tensions with pro-Serb opposition groups.

The Montenegrin Orthodox Church declared its separation from the SPC in the mid-1990s, but it is still not recognised by most Orthodox churches.

Around a third of Montenegro's population identify as Serb, according to the last census in 2011.

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