CETINJE, Montenegro (AP) – The new leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro was inaugurated on Sunday amid clashes between police and protesters opposed to Serbian influence in the small Balkan state.
Police and media reports said at least seven police officers and several protesters were injured in the clashes, with police firing tear gas at the protesters, throwing stones and bottles at them and firing shots into the air. At least 15 people were arrested.
Sunday’s ceremony in Cetinje, a former capital of the small Balkan nation, angered opponents of the Serbian church in Montenegro, which declared independence from neighboring Serbia in 2006.
Avoiding roadblocks set up by the protesters, the new leader of the Serbian church in Montenegro, Metropolitan Joanikije, arrived in Cetinje by helicopter with the Serbian patriarch. Television footage showed the priests being led into the Cetinje monastery by heavily armed rioters holding a bulletproof blanket to protect their bodies.
The protesters set up barriers with trash cans, decks and large rocks to try to prevent church and state ceremonies from attending the inauguration. Song “This is not Serbia!” and “This is Montenegro !,” many of the protesters spent the night at the barriers amid reports that police were sending reinforcements to break through the blockade. Tires at one blockade were set on fire.
Montenegrins remain deeply divided over their country’s ties to neighboring Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church, the nation’s dominant religious institution. About 30% of Montenegro’s 620,000 people consider themselves Serbs.
Since Montenegro split from Serbia, independent Montenegrins have been in favor of a recognized Orthodox Christian church separate from the Serbian one.
Metropolitan Joanikije said after the ceremony that “the divisions have been artificially created and we have done everything in our power to help remove them, but it will take a lot of time.”
In a clear demonstration of the sharp political and social divide in Montenegro, President Milo Djukanovic, the architect of the state’s independence from Serbia, visited Cetinje, while the current pro-Serbian Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic went to Podgorica to welcome the Serbian patriarch.
Krivokapic labeled the protests as “an attempt at terrorism”, while Djukanovic said protesters in Cetinje were guarding national interests against Serbia’s alleged bid to impose its influence in Montenegro through the church.
Djukanovic accused the government of “ruthlessly serving the imperial interests of (Serbia) and the Serbian Orthodox Church, which is a striking fist of Serbian nationalism, all against Montenegro.”
In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic, who has been accused by the Montenegro opposition of interfering in his internal affairs with Russia, congratulated Joanikije on the inauguration and praised the government for moving forward with the ceremony despite the clashes.
“Cetinje is a city where about 90% of the population is against the Serbian Orthodox Church, where there is hatred against anyone who is not Montenegrin,” Vucic said in Belgrade. “This is not a real hatred, its hatred evoked by certain politicians in Montenegro, so it was quite logical to expect what happened there.”
The US government called on all sides to “urgently escalate the situation”, according to a US embassy statement.
“Freedom of religion and expression, including for peaceful assembly, must be respected,” it said.
Joanikije’s predecessor as church leader in Montenegro, Amfilohije, died in October after receiving COVID-19.
Montenegro’s former authorities led the country to independence from Serbia and defied Russia to join NATO in 2017. Montenegro is also seeking to join the European Union.
Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.
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