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Serbian, Montenegrin Orthodox Churches Hold Dueling Christmas Ceremonies Amid Tensions Over New Law On Religion

A member of the Serbian Orthodox Church attends a service during Orthodox Christmas Eve celebrations in Cetinje, Montenegro, January 6. The Montenegrin Orthodox Church also held an event in the town on the same day just a few hundred meters away.

CETINJE, Montenegro -- Christmas Eve celebrations were held by Montenegro's two dueling Orthodox denominations in the Balkan country's historical capital on January 6 without incident.

Thousands of members of the Serbian and the Montenegrin Orthodox churches -- separated by hundreds of police -- attended the two ceremonies held just a few hundred meters apart in the small town of Cetinje.

The events -- held annually since 1994 -- took place this year amid high tension between the two churches after the passage of controversial legislation that could force the predominant Serbian Orthodox Church to turn over churches and other property to Montenegrin authorities.

The ceremonial burning of the Christmas tree involves a bonfire, blessings, and caroling in celebration of Jesus's birth.

Similar events will also be held in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, and in the country's second city, Niksic.

Montenegro's parliament passed a law on December 27 under which religious communities must prove property ownership from before 1918.

That's the year when predominantly Orthodox Christian Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes -- and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church was subsumed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, losing all of its property in the process.

The law takes effect on January 7.

The Serbian Orthodox Church says the law is aimed at retaking its property and has held a series of protests since the law's passage, which was preceded by raucous scenes in parliament and the physical removal of members of the opposition.

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

The passage of the law has also led to protests in Serbia -- including in parliament and at the Montenegrin Embassy -- and led to the cancellation of a planned visit to Montenegro by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

Apart from announcing weekly protests on Thursdays and Sundays, the Serbian Orthodox Church hopes the Montenegrin Constitutional Court will rule in its favor and declare the new law on religious property unconstitutional.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said the new law should be viewed as a new beginning of "coexistence and trust and not of separation."