PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) – Demonstrators clashed with hundreds of riot police in the old capital of Montenegro on Saturday and erected blockades of tires and large stones in front of the inauguration of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the small Balkan nation.
The ceremony planned for Sunday in Cetinje has angered opponents of the Serbian Church in Montenegro, which declared its independence from neighboring Serbia in 2006.
Hundreds of demonstrators confronted the police in Cetinje on Saturday and briefly removed some of the protective metal fences around the monastery where the inauguration of the Mitropolitan Joanikije is to take place. The Montenegrin state television RTCG said the demonstrators broke a police blockade at the entrance to Cetinje and threw stones at them and “This is Montenegro!” and “This is not Serbia!”
Protesters waved red Montenegrin flags with a double-headed eagle and then erected roadblocks with dumpsters, car tires and large stones to prevent church and state dignitaries from attending the inauguration on Sunday.
Montenegrins remain deeply divided over their country’s relations with neighboring Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church, which is the country’s dominant religious institution. Around 30% of the 620,000 inhabitants of Montenegro describe themselves as Serbs.
Thousands protested in Cetinje last month, demanding that the inauguration be held elsewhere. The church has refused to change its plans.
Ever since Montenegro separated from Serbia, the Montenegrins supporters of independence have been campaigning for a recognized Christian Orthodox Church that is separate from the Serbian one.
The Montenegrin authorities pressed for silence during the weekend’s celebrations starting with the arrival of the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Porfirije, on Saturday evening in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro.
Porfirije will attend the inauguration of Joanikije on Sunday, whose predecessor as church leader in Montenegro, Amfilohije, died of COVID-19 in October.
Illustrating the deep ethnic divide, thousands of people waving Serbian flags gathered outside the Serbian Orthodox Church in Podgorica to greet the patriarch on Saturday. Many were driven to the capital from Serbia.
The Serbian Orthodox Church played a key role in demonstrations last year that helped overthrow a longstanding pro-Western government in Montenegro. The new government now includes decidedly pro-Serb and pro-Russian parties.
Montenegro’s previous authorities led the country to independence from Serbia and opposed Russia’s accession to NATO in 2017. Montenegro is also aiming for membership in the European Union.
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