CETINJE, Montenegro -- The new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro has been inaugurated, arriving by helicopter under the protection of police who dispersed hundreds of protesters with tear gas.
The decision to anoint Bishop Joanikije II as the new Metropolitan of Montenegro at a historic monastery in the town of Cetinje, the former capital, has provoked ethnic tensions in the small Balkan nation.
Demonstrators said the choice of venue was an insult to Montenegro's centuries-old struggle for sovereignty and independence.
Protesters have clashed with police, setting up road barriers with trash containers, tires, and stones to prevent church and state dignitaries from attending the inauguration.
Riot police responded by using tear gas and firing gunshots in the air.
Hospital officials in Cetinje said at least 60 people were injured in the clashes, including 30 police officers. At least 15 people were arrested.
The protesters broke through a police blockade at the entrance to Cetinje and threw stones at them, shouting, "This is Montenegro!” and “This is not Serbia!” Montenegrin state RTCG TV said.
Montenegrins remain deeply divided over their country’s ties with Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church. About 30 percent of the country's population of 600,000 identifies as Serb, and the Serbian Orthodox Church is the predominant religion in the country.
Pro-independence Montenegrins have advocated for a recognized Orthodox Christian Church separate from the Serbian one.
Joanikije’s inauguration ceremony started with the arrival on September 4 of the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Porfirije, in Podgorica, Montenegro's capital.
Patriarch Porfirije attended the inauguration of Joanikije, whose predecessor, Metropolitan Amfilohije, died in October at age 82 after contracting COVID-19.
The Serbian Orthodox Church played a key role in demonstrations last year that helped topple a long-ruling pro-Western government. Montenegro’s new government includes staunchly pro-Serb and pro-Russian parties.
Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic and some government ministers close to the Serbian Orthodox Church supported the installment of Joanikije in Cetinje.
Montenegro's previous leaders defied Russia to seal the country’s membership in NATO in 2017. Montenegro also is seeking to become a European Union member.