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Pope Warned Montenegro Over Religion Law, Serbian Church Claims

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The Serbian Orthodox Church says Pope Francis shares its concerns about the controversial law being pushed by Montenegro’s government.

By Samir Kajosevic

As the battle continues in Montenegro over a controversial new law on religion, the country’s largest faith body, the Serbian Orthodox Church, has claimed that Pope Francis asked the Prime Minister not to adopt the law before obtaining the consent of all religious communities in Montenegro.

The Church’s official website quoted the Pope’s response to a letter from the Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch, Irinej, stating that the Vatican had contacted PM Dusko Markovic.

“The Secretary of State, Cardinal Petro Parolin, personally addressed Markovic, not with the aim of interfering with the internal affairs of the Montenegrin state, but in the hope that the proposed law concerning religious freedoms would be passed on democratic principles,” the letter states.

“Otherwise it should not be confirmed unless the highest possible agreement of all religious communities in Montenegro is reached first,” the letter to Irinej adds.

Markovic’s office did not respond to queries from BIRN about whether it had received the letter from the Vatican or responded to it by the time of publication.

The government has pushed ahead with the controversial proposed law, despite continuing opposition from the Serbian Church, which accuses it of planning to raid its assets.

The main area of contention in the law is the proposal to register as state property of all religious buildings and sites formerly owned by the independent kingdom of Montenegro before it became part of the Serb-dominated Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later called Yugoslavia, in 1918.

The law states that religious communities can only retain their assets if they can produce evidence of the right to ownership, triggering accusations from the Serbian Church that the government plans to dispute its holdings.

Markovic on Wednesday insisted that the law was not directed at any religious community, and promised a parliamentary debate on it on December 24. Three days earlier, the Serbian Church plans to hold a large protest rally in the country’s second city of Niksic, at which it will again demand withdrawal of the law.

“No churches or monasteries have been attacked, nor will we step there to conquer that space. Religious ceremonies will continue to be served in churches, and they will continue to be places for believers, but in accordance with the law,” Markovic told a press conference.

The Serbian Church has been busy gathering foreign allies in its struggle against the government in Podgorica.  In June, media reported that the head of the global Orthodox communion, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, had written to Montenegro’s President, Milo Djukanovic, demanding that the law be withdrawn.

In July, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church called on the Montenegrin authorities to “abandon the [planned] appropriation of Church property”.

Relations between the largest denomination in multi-ethnic Montenegro and the pro-Western government have always been poor. The government considers the Church hostile to the country’s independence, and generally too pro-Serbian and pro-Russian. The Church accuses the government of routinely trying to undermine it and strip the country of its Serbian heritage.

Balkan Insight

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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