MONTENEGRO ‘Patriots’ rally against changes to religion law

Democratic Party of Socialists vice president, Dusko Markovic attending so-called patriotic protests in Podgorica, Montenegro. Photo:BIRN/Samir Kajosevic

Thousands of supporters demonstrated in Podgorica on Monday, demanding that the new government withdraw changes to the hotly disputed Freedom of Religion Law – which had angered ethnic Serbs and the Serbian Orthodox Church.

 

 

 

By Samir Kajosevic

 

Balkan Insight (28.12.2020) – https://bit.ly/3mTaSyh – Supporters of so-called patriotic organisations in Montenegro protested on Monday in the capital Podgorica against the new government’s proposals to change the hotly disputed Freedom of Religion law, erasing all elements opposed by the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church.

Waving Montenegrin flags and chanting against the new government, thousands of protesters called on MPs not to support the changes due to be voted on in parliament by the end of the year.

One of the organisers, Nemanja Batricevic, accused the new government of giving away assets to the Serbian Orthodox Church, and to Serbia.

“They are handing Montenegrin cultural treasure to the Serbian Orthodox Church and to Serbia. Today, with the votes of the corrupted Montenegrins, they are handing over Montenegro again,” Batricevic said.

Protests were staged in front of the parliament ahead of the debate about the proposed changes. Before the session started, former PM Dusko Markovic, vice president of the now opposition Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, and party colleagues, greeted the protesters.

The protesters were also supported by some officials of the opposition Social Democratic Party, Social Democrats and Liberal Party.

After the last parliament passed the law in December 2019, Serbian Orthodox Church priests, believers and supporters staged numerous protests demanding its withdrawal. The Church – whose relations with the previous government were already poor – claimed the new law would allow the state to confiscate its property.

On August 30, three opposition blocs won a slender majority of 41 of the 81 seats in parliament, ousting the long-ruling DPS, which had passed the religion law.

After the election, the new Prime Minister, Zdravko Krivokapic, promised that changing the law would be a priority. On December 18, the new government said it would change the law by erasing all elements previously opposed by the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The changes erase the main bone of contention – an obligation on religious communities to provide clear evidence of ownership in order to retain their properties.

There will also be no registration of religious buildings and sites owned by the independent kingdom of Montenegro before it became part of the Serb-dominated Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, later renamed Yugoslavia.

The government is also withdrawing the obligation for religious communities to re-register, which angered the Serbian Church, which said its religious community had existed in Montenegro for eight centuries.

A DPS MP, Dragutin Papovic, said the proposals discriminated against two-thirds of Montenenrgin citizens. “This government gives a monopoly to only one religious community and only one nation. We will not allow this and will use all democratic ways to protect our citizens,” Papovic told a press conference.

Minister of Justice Vladimir Leposavic said no discrimination between religious communities was intended. “With the changes to the law, the cultural property owned by religious communities has been strengthened. No one can transfer state property,” Leposavic said.




MONTENEGRO: How attacks on religious freedom threaten the Church

– 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




Montenegro legalises same-sex civil partnerships

The Balkan country is the first European country outside Western Europe and the European Union to legally recognise gay and lesbian couples.

 

By Rachel Savage

 

Thomson Reuters Foundation (01.07.2020) – https://bit.ly/2O02Fcs – Montenegro voted to legalise same-sex civil partnerships on Wednesday, becoming the first European country outside of Western Europe and the European Union to legally recognise gay and lesbian couples.

 

The law received 42 votes in the 81-seat parliament, Blanka Radosevic Marovic, a director in the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, after it was rejected by parliament in July 2019.

 

The vote in the Balkan country, which is in advanced negotiations to join the European Union, was welcomed by its leaders on Twitter as affirming “European values”.

 

“A great step in the right direction for (Montenegro) society, its democratic maturity and integration processes,” Prime Minister Dusko Markovic tweeted.

 

Montenegro “is one step closer to joining the most developed world democracies,” President Milo Dukanovic said on Twitter. “Born free and equal in dignity and rights!”

 

The country, with a population of about 620,000 people, becomes the 32nd United Nations member to recognise some form of civil partnership for same-sex couples. Gay and lesbian couples can marry in 28 U.N. countries.

 

Three Serbian lesbian couples launched legal cases last year challenging their country’s lack of same-sex civil partnerships, while Bosnia’s government is considering whether to introduce similar legislation.

 

LGBT+ campaigners welcomed the law, which will come into force in a year’s time after regulations have been finalised and government clerks trained.

 

“I honestly I wasn’t expecting it,” said John Barac, executive director of LGBT Forum Progress, an advocacy group. “It’s really extraordinary, it’s a big day for all of us.”

 

Montenegro’s government has promoted LGBT+ rights with an “action plan” for 2019-2023 including proposals such as anti-discrimination training for police and health workers but faced opposition from a socially conservative society.

 

Opposing members of parliament described same-sex civil partnerships as imposed by “global world Satanists” during the lawmakers’ debates on Tuesday, Barac said.

 

Lawmakers who opposed the bill did not vote on Wednesday, a spokesman for Montenegro’s prime minister said.




Djukanovic: Montenegro must have its own church to resist interference from Serbia

Milo Djukanovic believes that Montenegro must have its own Orthodox Church in order to consolidate its national identity and oppose interference from Serbia.

 

World Remit (14.02.2020) – https://bit.ly/2OXzvvh – Djukanovic, who has been running the country for three decades, spoke about the controversial law on religious freedom, which triggered mass protests of the tens of thousands of believers who regularly take to the streets, a few months before the parliamentary elections in Montenegro.

The Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), based in Belgrade, represents the vast majority of Orthodox believers in Montenegro. However, her relations with Djukanovic, who was an advocate of separation from Serbia in 2006, with whom Montenegro has been together for almost 90 years in 2006, have worsened in recent years.

The SPC is accused of being linked to the pro-Serbian and pro-Russian opposition to the ruling party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), headed by Milo Djukanovic, who has dominated political life in Montenegro since the 1990s.

According to him, Belgrade is using the SPC to interfere with Podgorica’s internal affairs.

Djukanovic believes that SPC is one of “important instruments used by the ideologists of Greater Serbia nationalism against Montenegro, against its independence, its national, cultural and religious identity”.

The law, passed in late December, provides for the state to take control of property that religious communities cannot prove to have belonged to them before 1918. That year, Montenegro lost its independence and integrated itself into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slavs.

The text of the law could refer to a large part of 650 churches and monasteries in Montenegro. The SPC accuses the government of wanting to confiscate her property, with mass prayers being held twice a week, and at these rallies, it is called for the law revocation.

“SPC uses a skillful form of manipulation to believe that the state wants to take away their holy sanctuaries,” Djukanovic said, adding that state-controlled churches would continue to receive Orthodox believers.

“It is a blackmail. The SPC is trying to use believers as a way of pressure on the state to give up the law, or to force it to capitulate. This is absolutely unacceptable”, the Montenegrin President said.

According to him, Montenegro should have its own church as a way of asserting its national identity 14 years after independence.

“We are driven by the indisputable need to improve spiritual, social and state infrastructure in order to strengthen citizens’ awareness of their identity,” he said, adding that there should be an autonomous Orthodox Church in Montenegro that would bring together all Orthodox believers, “the members of the Serbian, together with the members of the Montenegrin nationality”.

For 30 years, the small Orthodox Church of Montenegro, in the minority, has been trying to revive, but it has not been recognized in the Orthodox world. As parliamentary elections scheduled for fall are nearing, critics accuse Djukanovic of using this controversy to divert attention from economic problems, mass emigration or corruption. Djukanovic, who has almost continuously changed his position from prime minister to president, has also been criticized for being an obstacle to democracy.

He responds that voters have always been free to express themselves and that his opponents are bad losers.

“My opponents are deceived if they think we will do them a favor and give them power without elections,” he said, adding that Montenegro, which has made the most progress in EU membership negotiations, will continue its path of reform.

“I think that we will be able to fulfill our commitments and that Montenegro will be able to join the EU in 2025,” he said, adding that the issue of the date of accession is not a priority, but to succeed in the Europeanization of Montenegrin society is among the priorities.




Montenegro is rethinking the Law on Freedom of Religion

According to daily “Vijesti”, the Government of Montenegro is ready to temporarily postpone the implementation of the Law on Freedom of Religion.

World Remit (07.02.2020) – https://bit.ly/2uRKfES – EU Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi said that Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic had informed him that the Government was ready to temporarily postpone the implementation of the Freedom of Religion Act.

Multiple sources confirmed to “Vijesti” that Várhelyi conveyed this message at a meeting with the Montenegrin opposition.

Markovic allegedly offered to postpone the implementation of the Act until the Constitutional Court’s decision, and in case the initiative of the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral was rejected, until the decision of the Court in Strasbourg.

Unofficially, the government explained to “Vijesti” that this was a logical move, because the law is a lex specialis and that the constitutionality of the law is very important.

“Vijesti” has not yet received an answer to the questions formally referred to the government.

“Everything was said at the conference”

After Montenegrin media wrote that the European Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi had said at a meeting with the opposition that the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Dusko Markovic, had informed him that the government was ready to suspend the implementation of the Law on Religious Freedom, the Montenegrin government briefly replied to CdM that Markovic said everything he had on that subject, at the press conference.

At a press conference held earlier today, Markovic did not mention any possible delay in the implementation of this law.

“The Prime Minister said at a press conference what he had to say on the subject of your question”, the government told CdM in response to a question whether there had been any discussions during the meeting between Markovic and Várhelyi regarding delaying implementation of the Law on Religious Freedom.