Montenegrin police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protests against the detention of eight Serbian Orthodox Church priests who led a religious procession despite a ban on gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The incidents late on May 13 in the towns of Niksic and Pljevlja came a day after thousands of people attended a procession in Niksic without wearing face masks or maintaining a safe distance from each other.
Belgrade strongly criticized the detention of the eight Serbian Orthodox Church priests, including Bishop Ioaniki, which opened fresh religious and political tensions between the two neighbors.
In Pljevlja, police said they fired tear gas at protesters after crowds ignored orders to disperse and threw stones, bottles, and fireworks at officers. There was also a mass gathering in Niksic, during which the police dispersed protesters with tear gas. Police said several protesters were arrested.
Protests were held elsewhere in the country, including one that blocked a regional road.
Prosecutors said on May 13 that the eight priests are facing up to 12 years in prison on charges of violating virus restrictions.
Video and pictures from the procession show most participants didn't wear face masks or practice physical distancing.
"[The priests] are accused of the criminal offense of violating health rules in the prevention of a dangerous contagious disease," district attorney Stevo Sekaric said in a statement.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Irinej voiced hope in a joint statement on May 13 that the arrests would not spark any “unwanted unrest or clashes."
Vucic urged a peaceful resolution of the crisis and a quick release of the priests.
Irinej said the detentions are "proof that the Montenegrin state is conducting a purge of the Serbian Orthodox Church."
The arrests highlighted ongoing tensions between Montenegro's pro-Western authorities and the Serbian Orthodox Church, which they see as a tool for meddling by Moscow-backed Serbia.
Earlier this year, the Serbian Orthodox Church led weeks of protests in Montenegro against a religious law that it says would strip the church of its property in the country.
The law that came into force in January says religious communities must prove property ownership from before 1918, the year when Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and its church was subsumed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, losing all of its property in the process.
The Serbian Orthodox Church says the law is aimed at retaking its property. Montenegrin officials have repeatedly denied the allegations.
Montenegro, a country of 620,000 people, split from Serbia in a referendum in 2006 and further turned away from Belgrade and its Orthodox ally Russia, taking a pro-Western course and joining NATO in 2017. The country has also been negotiating European Union membership.
Serbian nationalists in both countries have never fully recognized Serbia's separation from Montenegro, which they claim is a historic Serbian territory.