Who Owns the Church?: Religion, State and People collide in Montenegro over religious property law

January 9, 2021

2 min read

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What's going on here?

There have been demonstrations of several thousand people in Montenegro’s capital Podgorica on the cusp of the New Year. Citizens have been protesting against a planned amendment to legislation regarding religious rights and property. 

What does this mean?

The protests revolved around “The Law on the Freedom of Religion and Belief and the Legal State of Religious Communities”. It originally held that religious institutions would have to prove they held rights to their property before 1918, otherwise the state could seize the property. The significance of this date is that, in 1918, the Kingdom of Montenegro joined other Balkan States in a Kingdom which preceded the former Yugoslavia. The Montenegrin government, which came into power in 2020 with a slim majority, has amended to remove this section. They reason that, by doing so, it will ensure the properties stay in the hands of the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, protesters argue that the amendment could set the stage for the Serbian occupation of Montenegro and allow the Montenegrin government, which recently became more aligned to Serbia, to impound church property. 

What's the big picture effect?

There was outrage in 2019 when this law was first enacted, so it is no surprise that this amendment has also provoked such strong reactions. Amending the law has reignited accusations of the government being pro-Serb, as the major opposition when this law was enacted was the Serbian Orthodox Church. Peaceful marches in February highlighted tensions between the rights of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the then pro-Western government. The Serbian Orthodox Church claimed discrimination, being the only religious group to contest this law. It is no surprise that a pro-Serbian government have looked to amend alleged discrimination, but has raised concern over the possible re-emergence of closer ties to Serbia. While Serbian Orthodox Christianity is the most popular religion in Montenegro, there is no official state religion and the recent change in government has challenged the country’s history of religious diversity and tolerance.

Since the recent election in 2020, there has been increased tension between government and opposition. The previous government had pressed to steer Montenegro away from Russian and Serbian influence, whilst the government’s decision seems to go prima facie in the face of this. One of the biggest challenges, when this new government was formed, was to reconcile the pro-EU and pro-Serbia and pro-Russian stances across the alliances. The DPS, who had been in government for almost 20 years before being ousted in August 2020, has been historically pro-Western. After a referendum in 2006, Montenegro declared itself independent from Serbia, and opponents in the rally accused the government of sliding further into a Serbian sphere of influence. 

On balance, one can understand the protests ideologically. The church and state in Montenegro have long been tied to ideas of independence and Serbian influence, and the long dispute between the Serbian Orthodox Church and Montenegrin Orthodox Church is testament to such conflict. As tension resurfaces after a seismic shift in the government’s position, it is clear how divided the Republic is over such an emotive issue. 

Report written by Millie North

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