Montenegrin bill aims to seize churches from Serbian Church, bishops fear

Podgorica, Montenegro, May 22, 2019

Holy Dormition Monastery in Budva, Montenegro. Photo: Holy Dormition Monastery in Budva, Montenegro. Photo:     

A new draft law passed in Montenegro concerning religious communities constitutes interference in internal Church issues and could lead to churches being taken away from the Serbian Orthodox Church, the hierarchs of the Serbian Church state in the communiqué from the latest meeting of the Council of Bishops.

The Montenegrin Cabinet approved the draft law on the freedom of religion or belief and the legal status of religious communities on May 16, drawing sharp criticism from the nation’s largest religious community—the Metropolis of Montenegro-Littoral of the Serbian Orthodox Church, headed by His Eminence Metropolitan Amfilohije.

It is expected that the controversial bill will be considered by Montenegrin deputies at a plenary session in July.

The Serbian Church faces animosity and discrimination throughout the states of the former Yugoslavia—in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, but especially in Montenegro, the bishops write.

The clergy of the Serbian Church in Montenegro are especially concerned about provisions of the bill that allow for the state to reclaim religious building that belonged to the state before 1918.

“All religious buildings that were property of the State of Montenegro before the loss of its independence and merging into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, and which subsequently did not become the property of a religious community in the proper legal way, will be recognised as state property,” the Secretariat-General of the Montenegrin government reports. Such sites will be deemed cultural treasures belonging to the state.

“There are also attempts to violently take away our holy sites in favor of the canonically and realistically non-existent ‘Montenegrin Orthodox Church’ and threats to destroy certain churches (the church on the mountain Rumija and the baptistery on Prevlaka),” the communiqué reads.

Moreover, the Church counters that there are no documents from 1860 to the present demonstrating that the principality or kingdom owned any churches or mosques, according to the Serbian newspaper Politika.

The bishops’ statement refers to the new law as an “anti-European and anti-civilized motion for law” that “abolish[es] the inalienable right of the citizens to freedom of religious and conscience.”

Conversely, the Secretariat-General reports that “The draft law is in line with the highest international standards, namely the United Nations’ conventions in this area, the European Convention on Human Rights with accompanying practices of the European Court of Human Rights, and the Guidelines of the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR.”

In December, it was reported that Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović intends to secure the recognition of the autocephaly of the miniscule and schismatic “Montenegrin Orthodox Church.” It was later reported that Montenegrin authorities refused to extend the residency permits for more than 50 monastics and clergymen of the Serbian Orthodox Church, although they have been in the country with temporary permits for the past two years.

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