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Parliamentary punch-up as Montenegro passes controversial religious law

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Police officers carry a pro-Serb opposition lawmaker in the parliament building in Podgorica, Montenegro, Friday, Dec. 27, 2019.
Police officers carry a pro-Serb opposition lawmaker in the parliament building in Podgorica, Montenegro, Friday, Dec. 27, 2019.   -  
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Montenegrin lawmakers approved a bitterly fought over religious law on Friday morning despite all pro-Serb opposition MPs being momentarily detained after clashes broke out in parliament.

Hoping to delay the vote late on Thursday evening, pro-Serbian lawmakers from the Democratic Front rushed at the Speaker and removed his microphone. Footage released online by the right-wing political alliance show plain-clothed police officers wearing gas masks attempt to break up the chaotic scene.

Publiée par Марина Јочић sur Jeudi 26 décembre 2019

Police detained 22 people, of whom 17 were Democratic Front lawmakers, authorities said in a statement. All but three have since been released. They are being accused of "preventing an official from performing an official duty".

What is the law?

The legislation will force religious communities to provide a register of everything they own as well as evidence of ownership from before 1918 — when Montenegro joined a Serb-led Balkan kingdom and lost its independence — in order to retain their property.

It was approved by 45 ruling coalition lawmakers.

Who opposes it?

The law has been decried by the Serbian Orthodox Church which slammed it as "discriminatory and unconstitutional.''

The Holy Synod of Bishops argued in a statement released on Wednesday that it will enable the government to "forcibly take away churches and monasteries" belonging to them.

The Church has been backed by pro-Serb politicians and their supporters. Hundreds gathered on Thursday in the capital Podgorica to protest the law ahead of the parliamentary vote, including prominent Church figures.

Authorities deployed riot officers to prevent the protesters from blocking roads and reaching parliament with police refuting claims that it had "beat up the Most Holy Bishop of Diocletian Methodius".

The three lawmakers now facing criminal charges include Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic who were sentenced to five years in jail in May for taking part in an alleged Russian-orchestrated coup attempt in 2016 against Montenegro's then-prime minister and current pro-Western president, Milo Djukanovic. They remained free pending their appeals.

The Serbian Orthodox Church

The country counts 622,000 inhabitants. Ethnic Montenegrins make up the largest group (44.5%) and are followed by ethnic Serbs who represent over a third of the population.

The Orthodox Church is the country's predominant faith and is massively followed by both groups, with 88% of ethnic Montenegrins and 98% of ethnic Serbs adhering to the faith. The main church is the Serbian Orthodox Church while a separate Montenegrin Orthodox Church isn't recognised by other Orthodox Christian churches.

President Milo Djukanovic has accused the Serbian Orthodox Church of promoting pro-Serb policies and seeking to undermine the country's statehood since it split from much larger Serbia in 2006.

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