PODGORICA -- Struck in rapid succession a year ago by the deaths from COVID-19 of two senior Orthodox priests, Montenegro's dominant church remains stubbornly wary of vaccines.
The vaccination rate is low and the death rate high in this country of around 620,000 people, more than two-thirds of them Orthodox.
But even as tougher anti-pandemic restrictions went into effect this month that could sharply affect attendance at churches and mosques across the country, the local arm of the Serbian Orthodox Church avoided calling for worshippers to get their shots.
"We should be careful," Joanikije II, the Serbian church's metropolitan for Montenegro and the Littoral, said before vaccination checks became mandatory on December 1. "We do not deny anything that medicine prescribes, we are merely careful, because politics, or some [other] interest, or who-knows-what, wants to be involved at every opportunity."
Asked to clarify, the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral declined to comment on its attitude toward vaccination.
Doctors and scientists around the world agree that mass vaccination is the best path to curbing the spread of COVID-19 and limiting hospitalizations and deaths.
Joanikije was enthroned in September, 10 months after his predecessor Metropolitan Amfilohije died following a coronavirus infection. Amfilohije's superior, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej, who was headquartered in Belgrade but retained considerable influence in Montenegro, was himself thought to have caught COVID-19 at Amfilohije's funeral, and he died shortly afterward, too.
The Serbian Orthodox Church was heavily criticized at the time for conducting religious services without masks or other precautions, and including high-risk rites like communion with a shared spoon.
Joanikije tested positive for the coronavirus in November 2020 and was vaccinated himself in May.
But the flock, in a region notorious for vaccine skepticism and the embrace of COVID-19 conspiracy theories, appears to have its own ideas.
Just 42 percent of Montenegrins have been fully vaccinated since the rollout began in early May, and the country's official death toll per 100,000 population (374) is fourth-highest in the world, behind Peru, Bulgaria, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
'Listen To Science'
In fact, the leadership of just one of Montenegro's three major faiths is publicly embracing vaccination to stem the current health crisis.
"Our call is always for people to listen to the voice of science, and [that is to] get vaccinated," Reis Rifat Fejzic, the head of the Islamic Community of Montenegro, an independent religious organization with a century-old history, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
His organization has urged observant Muslims to get their shots as soon as the vaccine was available, even if it came during Ramadan, the Islamic calendar's holiest and most abstemious month.
"I believe that a good portion of people will listen to the call of religious dignitaries to get vaccinated," Fejzic said.
There are no local figures available on vaccination rates by faith.
But the Catholic Church, which represents Montenegro's third-largest religious community behind Orthodoxy (72 percent) and Islam (19 percent) with around 3 percent, has also avoided endorsing the shots. The local Catholic leadership has said that "believers can access vaccinations in freedom of conscience," reflecting language on the topic from the Vatican.
Two Catholic dioceses told RFE/RL's Balkan Service last week that while they had respected epidemiological measures ahead of this month's requirement that churchgoers show a National Digital COVID Certificate, they won't become enforcers.
Catholic priests would not be requiring their faithful to show "any documents or evidence of health," they said. They will adhere "to useful regulations for combating the coronavirus," they added.
"We are grateful to God because no Catholic church in Montenegro has been a hotbed of infection or spread of the coronavirus," the dioceses said.
Montenegro has the dubious status as the only European country whose prime minister, former engineering professor Zdravko Krivokapic, still has not been vaccinated. A little over a year ago, after Krivokapic was filmed taking communion from a common spoon, he famously said that "if you have faith...you won't get infected through communion."
A month ago, amid a near-record spike in daily infections, Krivokapic suggested he had high levels of antibodies and repeated that he would get a vaccine only if his doctor recommended it.
Human Rights Action, an NGO in Podgorica, said after an Orthodox enthronement at the Djurjevi Stupovi monastery in late September that "the behavior of all of the state officials in attendance, who ignored the prescribed legal measures, was a joint demonstration against the rule of law and common sense."
With that kind of implicit message from on high from the government, religious authorities could play an outsize role in determining whether reluctant Montenegrins get the shot.
A November survey by local pollster Defacto Agency showed that religious communities enjoyed the highest level of trust among Montenegrins at around 60 percent, followed by the military and police. Public trust in the government was just 41 percent.
Bozena Jelusic, a member of the parliament's committee on education and science, questions some religious leaders' approaches in the current health crisis. "The key question is whether religious organizations can really have a clear conscience at this moment, when deciding between life and death, because a large part of the power to defeat the pandemic lies within their authority," Jelusic told RFE/RL.
"This is a great challenge for religious institutions because they are currently deciding whether we want to get sick en masse or get vaccinated en masse," Jelusic said.
Jelusic, a professor of literature and media literacy, said the country's main religious communities had taken "unequal approaches" to vaccination that reflect their respective attitudes toward science. "Some religious leaders believe that, unlike religion, science does not necessarily lead people to moral action," she said.
Montenegrin authorities on December 1 broadened a requirement for people to present so-called National Digital COVID Certificates for entry to restaurants, cultural and sporting events, and religious venues.
The certificate shows the cardholder is fully vaccinated, has recovered from COVID-19 in the previous 180 days, or has tested negative for the virus.