Protests in Montenegro continued into the new year over a religious property bill that the Serbian Orthodox Church and Russia oppose.
Several thousand demonstrators held a rally in the capital, Podgorica, on January 1 to draw attention to bitterly contentious legislation on religious faith that they say enables the state to impound property belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church.
The Montenegrin government denies it intends to seize property or wants to.
At the heart of the matter is legislation that stipulates religious communities with property need to provide proof of ownership from before 1918, the year that Montenegro joined a Serb-led Balkan kingdom and lost its independence.
Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic signed the law on December 28, a day after the bill was passed in a raucous parliamentary session in which many opposition lawmakers were forcibly removed from the chamber.
Pro-Serb Montenegrins and followers of the Serbian Orthodox Church have held protest marches since last week that have seen sporadic clashes with the police who have detained 45 people in the past several days.
On December 30, Prime Minister Dusko Markovic and Police director Veselin Veljovic said attacks on police officers in the country would not go unpunished.
"I urge the clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro to return to the temples and urge the faithful to stay in the temples and not to invite them to resist the authorities,” Markovic told reporters after a meeting he held at the Chamber of Commerce in Podgorica on December 30.
More than 70 percent of Montenegro’s 600,000 or so people declare themselves Orthodox.
The Serbian Orthodox Church has long dominated religious life in the Adriatic country and is thought to tend to around two-thirds of Montenegrin Orthodox believers.
It maintains that the bill is an effort to uproot it and take its extensive church and other property belongings in the country.
Similarly, Russia’s Foreign Ministry on December 31 criticized the law and expressed “serious concern” while asserting it is aimed at removing the Serbian church from Montenegro.
In turn, the Montenegrin Foreign Ministry accused Russia of meddling in the country’s internal affairs.
Montenegro is NATO’s newest member and aspires to join the European Union.
Podgorica has accused Moscow of trying to orchestrate a coup in 2016 designed to prevent the country’s eventual NATO accession at the time.
Russia has denied involvement.