Church row puts ex-allies Serbia and Montenegro at odds

Belgrade minister lambasts Podgorica’s ‘criminal regime’ over church property Bill

  Milo Dukanovic, centre, is backing a Bill to oblige religious communities to prove that their properties were in their possession before 1918. Photograph:  Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Milo Dukanovic, centre, is backing a Bill to oblige religious communities to prove that their properties were in their possession before 1918. Photograph: Pierre Crom/Getty Images

 

A looming dispute over church property has sparked an angry war of words between Serbia and Montenegro and exposed a growing rift between the former allies.

Montenegro’s president, Milo Djukanovic, backs a government Bill to oblige its religious communities to prove that property they now hold was in their possession before the country lost its independence in 1918. Those that cannot do so could see churches and monasteries fall under state control.

The Serbian Orthodox Church, which is Montenegro’s largest religious organisation, says the move is a crude land grab by Mr Djukanovic and his allies, who in turn accuse the church of pushing a Serb nationalist and pro-Russian agenda and disrespecting Montenegrin statehood.

Montenegro’s foreign ministry summoned Serbia’s ambassador on Thursday to complain about Belgrade’s criticism of the Bill, its “constant negative comments . . . about our country’s internal affairs” and about “harsh descriptions” of Mr Djukanovic by Serbian government minister Nenad Popovic.

Mr Djukanovic’s “criminal regime has stabbed Serbia and the Serbs in the back”, Belgrade’s minister without portfolio in charge of innovation and technology, who is known for his nationalist and pro-Moscow views, said last week.

“There is no more forgiveness and silence for Milo Djukanovic, and there can be no justification for that. He is an enemy of the Serbs and we should treat him like a real enemy,” he added, while urging Belgrade’s government to cut ties with Montenegro.

Protest

Thousands of people joined a protest against the Bill in Montenegro’s capital Podgorica last Saturday, as the country’s Serbian Orthodox Church held a council to discuss the proposed measures.

“Do not expect us to go peacefully. We will not arm ourselves but we will defend our property with our very lives,” Montenegrin bishop Joanikije of Budimlja-Niksic warned recently, according to the Balkan Insight news service.

Mr Djukanovic led Montenegro out of a union state with Serbia in 2006 and, while weathering persistent accusations of cronyism and corruption, he has taken his country into Nato and put it on the path to European Union membership.

In the process, Belgrade says he has damaged bilateral relations and made life harder for Serbs in Montenegro, while Russia criticises his pro-western policies but denies its alleged role in a failed coup plot to oust him in 2016.

‘Transitory creation’

Mr Djukanovic said on Wednesday evening that the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro was “claiming land for Greater Serbia”, in reference to the expansionist Serb ideology that fuelled the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

“The Serbian Orthodox Church continuously perceives the Montenegrin national identity as non-existent...that independent Montenegro is a transitory creation,” he told N1 television in Bosnia.

The Kingdom of Montenegro was absorbed in 1918 into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.