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Montenegro Protest Against Religious Law Canceled Over Possible 'Serious Disturbance' To Public Order

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Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic (file photo)

CETINJE, Montenegro -- A planned protest in the Montenegrin town of Cetinje against a controversial new law on religion has been canceled after locals voiced their disapproval of the rally.

The Serbian Orthodox Church announced it had put off the march scheduled for January 23, saying police had warned that "serious disturbance" of public order could occur during the event.

The church's announcement on January 22 came after several thousand people opposed to the march took to the streets of Cetinje and warned they would block the protesters' access to the town.

Cetinje is a stronghold of Montenegrin national feeling but also the seat of Bishop Amfilohije, the head of Montenegro's Serbian Orthodox Church, which is vehemently opposed to the recently adopted legislation on religion.

The passage of the law last month has led to frequent protests organized by the church across Montenegro, as well as in neighboring Kosovo and Serbia. It also triggered the cancellation of a planned visit to Montenegro by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

The Serbian Orthodox Church, its supporters, and pro-Serbian opposition parties fear the law will enable the Montenegrin government to impound church property, though officials deny they intend to.

Earlier on January 22, Prime Minister Dusko Markovic told Montenegrin television he was willing to continue discussions on the Freedom of Religion Act with Amfilohije.

But he also said that the only option for the church would be to challenge it at the Constitutional Court.

Under the law, religious communities must prove property ownership from before 1918, otherwise assets will be considered state property.

Predominantly Orthodox Christian Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in 1918, and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church was subsumed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, losing all of its property in the process.

Commenting on the protests against the law, Markovic said that the events had turned into a showdown with the Montenegrin state's institutions and its right to self-determination.

"This attack and unprecedented propaganda was carried out not only by actors within the country, but also by the most drastic and brutal actors from neighboring Serbia," he said.

Serbia and Montenegro were part of a federation until 2006, when Montenegro declared its independence.

Relations between the two countries were at their worst since the restoration of Montenegrin independence, according to Markovic.

However, he insisted that Montenegro regards Serbia as a friend and a neighbor with whom it has shared values.

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