One country, two churches: Montenegro's Christmas Eve tensions


Cetinje (Montenegro) (AFP)

Montenegro's Orthodox believers celebrated their Christmas Eve on Monday in a tense climate over a bitter dispute between the country's rival churches that has also strained ties with neighbouring Serbia.

Two groups of rival worshippers gathered just 100 metres (yards) apart in the former royal capital of Cetinje for the ritual lighting of a yule log.

One group hails from the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), the country's main religious body, while the other follows the smaller Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which still lacks global recognition.

Police turned out in force to prevent incidents as about 1,500 believers peacefully attended the ceremonies on a sunny winter day, an AFP correspondent reported.

A controversial religious freedom law passed by parliament in late December added to decades-long tensions between the rival clergies.

It also touches on the sensitive issue of Montenegro's national identity and its relationship with Serbia, with which it was tied for nearly 90 years as part of the former Yugoslavia.

The new law requires religious communities to prove ownership of properties from before 1918 -- when Montenegro was absorbed into Serb-dominated Yugoslavia -- in order to keep them.

- 'Our sacred things' -

The government defends the law as a measure to reclaim what is rightfully Montenegrin property. But the SPC accuses the state of trying to appropriate hundreds of its churches and monasteries dotted across valuable land.

They accuse President Milo Djukanovic -- a strongman who has been in power for three decades -- of using the law to boost the fortunes of the Montenegrin Church, which saw a renewal in the 1990s.

Since the law was adopted, thousands of people have taken part in evening protest marches in Montenegrin cities calling for the legislation to be revoked.

"We are forced to fight for the preservation of our sacred things on the streets," Ivan Ivanovic, a 41-year-old teacher who attended Monday's ceremonies, told AFP.

Serbia's ambassador to Montenegro and leaders of pro-Serbian opposition parties joined the Orthodox Serb believers at their ceremony.

- Diplomatic row -

Meanwhile, Montenegrin Orthodox Church Archbishop Mihailo stressed that "after 50 years Montenegro eventually got a religious freedom law, in line with the strictest European standards."

Parliamentary speaker Ivan Brajovic and Podgorica mayor joined the Montenegrin Church ceremony.

But Nikola Radunovic, a popular rock singer from Cetinje, said he is "horrified by tensions" sparked by the law.

The 46-year-old told AFP he hopes for "enough normal people to handle things in a normal way, without weapons", recalling the bloody Balkans wars of the 1990s.

Some analysts argue the church issue is a kind of proxy war between Djukanovic -- who led Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006 -- and the pro-Serb opposition, which still feels an attachment to Belgrade.

Critics accuse Belgrade of using the Church to maintain influence in Montenegro's internal affairs.

"Since Montenegro gained independence... the Serbian Church has become the most powerful opposition to the state and its orientation," Vesko Garcevic, a Boston University professor and Montenegro's former ambassador to NATO, told AFP.

While Montenegro's government has in recent decades shifted to a firm pro-West stance, Serbia maintains close ties with its Orthodox big brother Russia.

Last week Montenegro and Serbia recalled each other's ambassadors after Serbian hard-core sports fans torched Montenegro's flag while throwing flares in front of its embassy in Belgrade.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic dropped a planned private visit to Serb Orthodox believers in Montenegro on Christmas Eve, which risked further fuelling bilateral tensions.

Around a third of Montenegro's population of 620,000 identify as Serbs.