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Montenegrin President Signs Controversial Law On Religion

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic in Podgorica on December 25
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.

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