By Samir Kajosevic
A local dispute has turned into became a much larger inter-ethnic row after unknown perpetrators removed a wooden cross from the foundations of St. Vasilije Ostroski church in the village of Martinaj and threw it into a nearby stream.
The incident was reported by Montenegrin media on Tuesday but escalated when former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha wrote on Facebook that “Montenegro-Serbian extremists are restoring the church to provoke Albanian residents”.
“I call on local and state authorities in Montenegro to intervene and prevent the illegal activities of extremist groups that cause inter-ethnic and religious tensions,” Berisha wrote on Thursday.Since 2001, the Serbian Orthodox Church has been trying to restore the church, of which only the foundations remain, but the ethnic Albanian majority in the village has consistently opposed the initiative.
Martinaj is situated in the mainly Bosniak and Albanian municipality of Gusinje, where locals have previously asked ethnic Albanian politicians to demand that the restoration work on the church be halted, calling it a ‘provocation’.
During a gathering of priests and Orthodox believers at the church foundations in 2013, a conflict erupted with local villagers, and police arrested 22 people.Orthodox Christians and priests set up a wooden cross at the site at end of April, but it was removed two weeks afterwards
Local Serbian Orthodox Church parish priest Bojan Radunovic appealed to ethnic Albanians in the village to show restraint.
“Orthodoxy is a religion of peace, love and forgiveness, but we also expect citizens of other religions to behave in such a way and not to try to deny anyone the freedom of religion, as we do not do that,” Radunovic told daily newspaper on Vijesti on Wednesday.
The Serbian Orthodox Church meanwhile called on the Montenegrin authorities to deal “with people who spread religious and national [ethnic] hatred”.
At a meeting on Thursday with the vice-president of the Montenegrin parliament, Genci Nimanbegu, ethnic Albanians from Gusinje said that the church was being rebuilt in a village which has no members of the Orthodox faith.“We do not object to the construction of a religious building, but only Albanians live in this village, and the church is being restored on the property of the Prelvukaj family.
The state should respond,” one of them, Arber Vukaj, told Montenegro’s public broadcaster.The Prelvukaj family sued the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2011, but a court in the Plav municipality concluded that the land on which the church is located doesn’t belong to the family.
The verdict was confirmed by the High Court in Bijelo Polje and the Supreme Court of Montenegro.St. Vasilije Ostroski church was built in 1928, but was destroyed in 1941 during World War II.According to the last census, the population of the Gusinje municipality is 54 per cent Bosniaks and Muslims, 22 per cent Albanians and 5.5 per cent Orthodox Christians.