Montenegro police face off with protesters over Serbian church ceremony

Demonstrations against the appointment of a new Church head reveal the deep ethnic divisions in the tiny Adriatic state

Thousands gathered outside a historic monastery in Montenegro at the weekend to protest against the anointment of a new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Cetinje.

Church leaders arrived by helicopter at an inauguration ceremony of Metropolitan Bishop Joanikije II on Sunday. Police used tear gas to disperse protesters, some of whom reportedly threw rocks, bottles and fire crackers.

Montenegro's deputy police director, Dragan Gorovic, told state TV that 20 officers were hurt. A state clinic in Cetinje said around 30 civilians sought help for injuries, Reuters reported.

Bishop Joanikije II takes over from the Serbian church’s previous most senior cleric in Montenegro, Metropolitan Bishop Amfilohije, who died in October from Covid-19, but the pomp and circumstance of his succession has inflamed ethnic tensions in the tiny Balkan state.

Formerly a part of a much larger Serbia, Montenegro declared itself an independent country in 2006. However, the country’s church remained under the Serbian Orthodox Church, which for some reflected the continued influence of its neighbour.

A member of Nato, Montenegro has been seeking European Union membership since gaining its autonomy.

Eighteen times smaller than the UK, the Adriatic nation has a population of 620,000 people - 30 per cent of whom identify as Serb - and remains split between Montenegrin nationalists and others who want closer ties with Belgrade.

The Cetinje Monastery is considered the historic cradle of Montenegrin statehood and protest leaders said they opposed the enthronement of the head of the Church in a shrine which symbolises Montenegro’s centuries-old struggle for sovereignty.

Demonstrators chanted “treason” and accused the government of setting the stage for the “occupation” by Serbia.

Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic described attacks on police in Cetinje as "an act of terrorism" and accused the Democratic Party of Socialists, which ruled the country for three decades before losing elections last year, of organising the protests.

The embassies of Germany, Italy, France, Britain, the US and the European Union condemned violence around the enthronement. EU special envoy for Montenegro Tonino Picula said that the rising tensions were worrying. "The freedom to expression, but also to protest is inviolable," Mr Picula told state TV.

Updated: September 6th 2021, 12:09 PM