CETINJE, Montenegro (AP) – Several thousand people demonstrated on Sunday in Montenegro for the planned inauguration of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the small Balkan state.
Ethical tensions are related to the planned ceremony for Metropolitan Bishop Joanikije II. The protesters in Montenegro’s former capital Cetinje, where the inauguration is due to take place on September 5, waved Montenegrin flags and chanted slogans against the country’s government, accusing them of being pro-Serbian to be.
Hundreds of police officers were on duty in the city and the US embassy warned Americans to avoid the protest.
Despite being asked to respect COVID-19 health measures, most of the protesters did not wear masks while chanting “Treason!” and accuses the government of having created the conditions for the “occupation” of Montenegro by Serbia.
Montenegro declared its independence from the much larger Serbia in 2006. The country is deeply divided between residents who consider themselves Montenegrins and those who deny the existence of the Montenegrin nation. About 30% of the country’s 600,000 residents identify as Serbs.
Joanikije II succeeds the previously highest-ranking cleric of the Serbian Church in Montenegro, Metropolitan Bishop Amfilohije, who died of a coronavirus infection in October. The inauguration ceremony takes place in the Cetinje Monastery, which is considered the historical cradle of the Montenegrin statehood.
Protest leaders said they are against the appointment of a new church leader, but against his enthronement in a shrine symbolizing Montenegro’s centuries-old struggle for sovereignty and independence.
“We will not allow any further desecration of Montenegrin shrines by those who do not recognize Montenegro as a state and Montenegrins as a nation,” Predrag Vusurovic, a protest organizer, told the crowd.
Joanikije said in a statement that it was “a shame” that his inauguration was being questioned.
“I am not sent by the Church in Serbia or the state,” he said. “I am not a foreigner. I was born in Montenegro, I am a citizen of this country.”
The Serbian Orthodox Church, the largest religious institution in Montenegro, played a key role in a movement that helped defeat a longstanding pro-Western government over the past year. The church protested for months against alleged plans by this government to take its property, which was denied by Montenegrin officials.
The former government had diverted Montenegro from both Serbian and Russian influence. The Adriatic nation joined NATO in 2017 and is aiming for membership in the European Union.
Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.
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