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Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic in Podgorica on December 25

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic signed bitterly contentious legislation on religion and faith into law on December 28, one day after the bill was passed in a raucous parliamentary session in which many opposition lawmakers were forcibly removed from the chamber.

The Law on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Legal Status of Religious Communities must still be published in the official state gazette and should enter into force eight days after its publication.

Its passage followed skirmishes with pro-Serbian deputies and a boycott in the Montenegrin parliament and sparked physical dust-ups in legislative chambers in neighboring Serbia and in Bosnia, so divisive are its implications for the Orthodox world and the Balkan region.

Djukanovic, who has led Montenegro for most of the nearly three decades since the breakup of Yugoslavia, has long sought to curb the influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church -- which he regards as a meddler in politics and a tool of foreign influence.

He has instead promoted a homegrown church that could take back up where a formerly recognized Montenegrin Orthodox Church left off under hotly disputed political circumstances in 1918-20.

More than 70 percent of Montenegro's 600,00 or so people declare themselves Orthodox.

The Serbian Orthodox Church -- which has long dominated religious life in Montenegro and is still thought to tend to around two-thirds of Montenegrin Orthodox believers -- has stridently objected to the bill as an effort to uproot it and take its extensive church and other property holdings in the country.

It is thought to control some 700 or so churches, monasteries, and other religious sites in Montenegro.

The Serbian Orthodox Church's Montenegrin arm, officially the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral, has called the bill "discriminatory and unconstitutional" and said it clears a path to the "hijacking" of its property.

The new law sets a date of 1918 for religious communities to show proof of previous ownership or face nationalization of their property to the Montenegrin state.

The Serbian church reportedly declined to engage with officials preparing the bill's final form and instead strategized as to how it would counter eventual challenges to its ownership of property under the new law.

International groups including the Venice Commission, the European Union, and even the Roman Catholic pope have warned of unfortunate consequences if the law is not "inclusive."

Three pro-Serbian opposition deputies in the Montenegrin parliament who were among those detained during the marathon fiery debate of the law on December 26-27 were only released from custody early on December 28.

Montenegro declared independence from a joint state union with Serbia after a referendum in 2006 that barely met the minimum threshold for validation.

Fewer than one-third of Montenegro's Orthodox believers are thought to worship with the more recently established -- and almost wholly unrecognized -- Montenegrin Orthodox Church that was created by defrocked Serbian Orthodox monk Antonije Abramovic in the 1990s.

Police detain a woman during an unsanctioned rally in the center of Moscow on July 27.

A series of single pickets were staged on Moscow's Pushkin Square on December 28 to call for the release of Russian political prisoners, including individuals convicted or still facing possible punishment for summertime protests over municipal elections in the capital.

The picketers included popular student blogger Yegor Zhukov, who received a three-year suspended sentence earlier this month after being found guilty of inciting extremism online in connection with the summer protests.

Anti-government demonstrations mounted in July against the official exclusion of opposition candidates from ballots in Moscow before a harsh police crackdown on July 27 that drew criticism in the West for its perceived "disproportionate" and "indiscriminate" use of force.

Russian authorities characterized unauthorized demonstrations in July and August as "mass riots," allowing them to prosecute protesters under Article 212 of the Criminal Code.

Fourteen people who attended anti-government rallies over the summer have been sentenced, with 11 of them receiving prison terms ranging from one to 5 1/2 years.

The July 27 rally drew about 10,000 people after weeks of demonstrations over the Moscow elections, making it the largest unsanctioned challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s rule in seven years.

Police forcibly dispersed the crowd at that event and detained more than 1,300 people.

But protests -- some with permits and others without official clearance -- continued for weeks.

One of two men convicted on December 24 was the last person still in pretrial custody in connection with the July protest.

Russian officials subsequently accused Germany and the United States of interference in connection with the protests -- allegations that Berlin and Washington rejected.

Based on reporting by Current Time

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