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– by Evstatije Dragojevic

– The Tablet (25.08.2020) – https://bit.ly/2EM160x – Faiths across the globe are being challenged. This threat is now moving closer, as dark clouds threaten in Europe. Throughout the continent, violations of religious freedom are increasing with believers of all faiths suffering.

I want to tell you about my own country, Montenegro, where moves by the Government against my church – the Serbian Orthodox Church – has provoked a crisis. What is happening in our tiny country discards the modern European concepts of fairness and law. It could set an alarming precedent for larger countries in Europe.

Independent since 2006, Montenegro may be a new country, but it has a long historical tradition – especially through the church. It is one of the oldest Orthodox churches in the world, emerging from the break-up of the Byzantine empire over the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Its ministry covers much of the former Yugoslavia and some 80 per cent of Montenegrins profess its faith.

But now the church and its members are under attack, as the government earmarks its property, including sacred churches, for their ownership. Under economic pressure predating the coronavirus, the government has looked for new revenue streams. It looks though they will come at the expense of believers.

This imminent land grab has mostly escaped international scrutiny. Seemingly, the country is on the right path, with incremental moves into the European sphere. Yet these trappings of modernity mask the corruption of basic values taking place.

Last December, under a thin veneer of legality, the government forced a new Law on Religious Freedom through parliament; forced because those members of the house opposed were arrested and held, while the act was passed without a vote against. A state-issued license is now mandatory to practice religion. This, importantly, requires the assets of faith communities to be registered. Though in practice, this only applies to the Serbian Orthodox Church, due to special treaties with minority religions.

In effect, the law wholesale transfers the ownership of church buildings and estates built before 1918 to the state. The onus falls on the church to prove their property rights; if they can’t, the state takes the property. But all arguments and evidence will be placed before an administrative government body (in fact, the same body that questions the ownership) packed with the President’s placemen. There will be no recourse to judicial courts to challenge the decision: the government’s word shall be final.

The consequences do not bear thinking about. We fear it will undoubtedly involve vandalism and destruction of cultural and spiritual artefacts, and the selling off land for redevelopment to build money spinning hotels and tourist facilities. The assets the government seeks have been founded and nurtured over centuries of Christian stewardship by our congregations and communities. They are holy places of Christian worship, monasteries, hostels for the homeless, and farms that feed many hundreds of families each and every day through soup kitchens.

This fear they will be seized extends beyond the clergy, to the faithful and, indeed, to anyone who believes in the property rights, the rule of law and the right of individuals to practice their faith free from harassment. That is why, before the coronavirus lockdown, they came out onto the streets across the country to protest this wrongful law. Sixty thousand alone gathered in the capital Podgorica – some ten percent of the entire population – to urge its recall.

The Government’s push back swiftly escalated. In May a young minister, Father Radovic, was assaulted outside his church by local youths, motivated by Government claims that the Church is a foreign influence. Because we are called the Serbian Orthodox Church, this can unfortunately be made to sound credible in the parliaments of Europe and the corridors of the US Congress. Yet we have had the same name across the Balkans for eight hundred years.

In the same month, a service was led by Bishop Joanikije at the Monastery of Ostrog, one of the most revered sites in Balkan Orthodoxy. Due to coronavirus, the service was just the Bishop and his clergy. The Monastery announced the annual public Saint Basil’s Day street procession was also cancelled. Yet the faithful still came in their thousands. Bishop Joanikije went to see them outside, urging them to return home.

The arrests began in the evening. When parishioners came out in towns and villages to protest our imprisonment, the police turned on them brutally. Then the forces moved on, detaining archdeacons and a further 25 priests.

Last month, more than 300 Montenegrin lawyers signed a petition labelling the law unconstitutional and a breach of human rights. In the UK, politicians across party divides have come together urging their Government to take action and sanction Montenegro. And in the US, members of Commission on International Religious Freedom, a State Department federal government agency, identified the worsening situation in Montenegro.

I appeal to our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church for your support. Over the centuries, our church has faced persecution from the Ottoman Caliphate to communist Yugoslavia. Today we face a different threat. Instead of the blade of the sword or barrel of gun, we meet our aggressors in the banality of administrative edict. Yet like our Lord, and with your support, we can rise again from these dark times.

Evstatije Dragojevic is the Episcopal Dean to the Bishop of Budimlja and Niksic, Montenegro

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