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Montenegro rocked by dispute over church property

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By Hans von der Brelie
Montenegro rocked by dispute over church property
Copyright  Hans von der Brelie

The small Western Balkans nation of Montenegro has been rocked by a conflict between the pro-European government and the Serbian Orthodox Church, which is protesting against a new law that makes it obligatory to register church properties.

Protesters fear that the State could confiscate Serbian Orthodox churches or cemeteries. The government of Montenegro rejects this interpretation of the new law.

Andrija Mandic, one of the main pro-Serbian opposition leaders, told Euronews that Serbs in Montenegro were being treated like second-class citizens.

“There is a real problem, created by the authorities. Serbs are discriminated against when in comes to investment programs, discriminated by the national education programs, discrimated when it comes to job policy.

“Being a Serb, you cannot get key positions in the State administrations, nor in the Army, nor in the police. Right now, on the top of that, we have an attack against our church. The government wants to give a last blow to our existence on these territories where we were living historically."

Such viewpoints are dangerous, according to Andrej Nikolaidis, a Montenegrin novelist, columnist, and political adviser.

Nikolaidis has launched a petition backing the government of Montenegro, signed by leading intellectuals from all over the Western Balkans region.

"I recognise the (same) signs which preceded the wars in Croatia and in Bosnia,” Nikolaidis told Euronews.

 “In this particular situation in Montenegro, such as the narrative about the so-called oppression of the Serbs in Montenegro. Before the war in Croatia, there is a narrative of oppression of Serbs in Croatia, then the war started. Then we were informed that the Serbs were oppressed in Bosnia - and the war in Bosnia started. Then it suddenly appeared that Serbs are also oppressed in Kosovo - then there was a war in Kosovo."

Montenegro was part of the same country as Serbia for nearly 90 years until its independence in 2006.

An estimated 70 percent of Montenegro's population of 620,000 are Orthodox faithful, most of them following Serbian Orthodox Church rites while a small minority follows the non-recognised Montenegrin Orthodox Church.

Under the new law, religious groups unable to provide evidence of ownership risk losing it to the State.

The government says it wants to clarify who owns what and the new law invites religious communities to register their properties.