Several thousand followers of the Serbian Orthodox Church rallied in Montenegro on Saturday against a controversial bill that they say will “steal” church property and give it to the state.
The draft law, which has to be discussed in parliament by the end of the year, has become a flashpoint for tensions between the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), the country’s main religious body, and the ruling party.
Under the draft legislation, religious communities would need to prove ownership of a property from before 1918, when Montenegro lost its independence, in order to keep it.
The SPC, which has hundreds of monasteries and thousands of square metres of valuable land in the tiny country, accuses the government of trying to appropriate church heritage and purloin its assets.
The government denies this, saying it only wants to sort out ownership rights.
About 6,000 people, according to police, gathered at an SPC council meeting outside a church in the western town of Niksic, braving rainy weather.
“We have gathered to unite… If one attacks the Church one attacks everything,” Bishop Joanikije of the Budimlja and Niksic diocese said during a mass.
The SPC council accused the government of trying to impose the bill “due to its unreasonable ideological and political goals”.
The bill is aimed at “looting our Church property and… eventually humiliating and trampling on our freedom and religion,” it said.
– ‘Defend Church with life‘ –
Some of the faithful who joined the rally came from neighbouring Serbia and Bosnia, including Sladjana, a 43-year-old woman whose parents are from Montenegro.
“If something needs to be preserved than it is the Church,” said the economist from Bosnia, who did not want to give her family name.
Filip Mikic, a 28-year-old economist from the capital Podgorica, said he attended the gathering to “defend the Church”.
“I will defend it with my life,” he told AFP.
On the eve of the rally, President Milo Djukanovic labelled it a “politicisation” and warned against the SPC’s “inappropriate interference in Montenegro’s political life”.
“We will not chase away the priests from Serb Orthodox Church premises,” Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said recently.
Pro-Serbian opposition parties have rallied around the SPC and vowed to protest against the bill on December 26.
The issue is especially sensitive because of Djukanovic’s support for the “renewal” of an independent Montenegrin Orthodox Church.
The Montenegrin Church declared its separation from the SPC in the mid-1990s, although it is not recognised by most Orthodox churches.
Montenegro was part of the same country as Serbia for nearly 90 years until its independence in 2006.
Nearly 72 percent of Montenegro’s population of 620,000 are Orthodox faithful.