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Montenegro's Pro-Serbian Opposition Protests Bill On Religious Communities

A Serbian Orthodox priest speaks with a riot policeman on a bridge near parliament, ahead of a vote on a bill on religious organizations in Podgorica on December 26.

Hundreds of supporters of the pro-Serbian opposition have taken to the streets in Montenegro to rally against a draft law on religious communities that they fear will strip the Serbian Orthodox Church of its property.

Riot police in helmets placed metal barriers along the street in the capital of Podgorica on December 26 to prevent the protesters, including some priests, from reaching the parliament building, where lawmakers debated the bill.

Roads were also closed in a number of areas around the country due to the protests, according to local media. No injuries, however, were reported.

The protests were sparked by a draft law that says religious communities would need to show evidence of ownership of their property from before 1918, when Montenegro joined a Balkan kingdom.

The Serbian Orthodox Church claims the law will strip it of its property, including dozens of medieval monasteries and churches, and said it plans to file a complaint with international organizations.

Montenegrin officials denied the church would lose its property.

Prime Minister Dusko Markovic met with Bishop Amfilohije, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, in an attempt to ease tensions, saying there was "no hidden agenda" behind the law.

The European Union days earlier cautioned Montenegro to regulate communities "in an inclusive way" and in accordance with international and European human rights standards.

The European Union is currently considering membership for Montenegro. The tiny Balkan country joined NATO in 2017.

Montenegro’s pro-Western president has accused the Serbian Orthodox Church of promoting pro-Serbian policies within the country and seeking to undermine its statehood.

The Serbian Orthodox Church is the dominant religious organization in Montenegro, a country of 620,000 predominantly Orthodox Christians. Montenegro split from its larger neighbor Serbia more than a decade ago.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters