Church Protests in Montenegro – Key Facts

USF.NEWS- BULGARIA (27.01.2020) – Large-scale protests, as well as some road blocks, began after the Montenegrin parliament adopted the law on December 27, 2019.

As lawmakers considered the bill, police shut down central Podgorica and halted a column of protesters headed by bishops and priests of the SPC; they instead held an open-air liturgy, denouncing the legislation.

People took to the streets in several other cities and towns in support of the Podgorica protest and some roads were blocked. Some towns saw unrest, with police using pepper spray to disperse crowds and arresting dozens.

The law envisages a register of all religious objects and sites that authorities say were the property of the independent Kingdom of Montenegro before it became part of the Serb-dominated Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, later renamed Yugoslavia.

Under the law, religious communities will have to provide clear evidence of ownership in order to retain their property, a provision that the SPC says is designed to allow the government to strip it of its holdings. The government denies harbouring any designs on Church assets.

Following adoption of the law, the SPC continued to lead daily protest marches, in Podgorica, Bar, Niksic, Berane, Bijelo Polje, Andrijevica, Herceg Novi, Danilovgrad, Pluzine and Zabljak.

After Orthodox Christmas on January 7, the protests became twice weekly, on Thursdays and Sundays. The SPC says some 50,000 people are taking part, in a country of just 650,000.

Who are the organisers?

Clergy of the SPC in Montenegro – led by Metropolitan Amfilohije – are organising the protests. National flags or those of political parties are notably absent.

Those attending sing church songs and chant, ‘We will not give you holy places’. Each protest begins with a prayer in the local church and end in a speech by the priest or bishop leading it. There are no overtly political speeches.

What is the role of opposition parties? 

Pro-Serbian opposition parties in Montenegro have called on their supporters to participate, but party leaders say they themselves are not involved in organising the protests.

Representatives of the Democratic Front, Democratic Montenegro, Socialist People’s Party, United Montenegro and Pravedna have been seen at the protests but have on the whole avoided public statements during the marches.

On the day of the vote in parliament, MPs of the main opposition Democratic Front charged towards the speaker of the parliament, some shouting that they were “ready to die” for the Church. Police intervened, after which the assembly voted to approve the bill.

A total of 22 people were detained over the incident, including 18 Democratic Front lawmakers, 15 of whom were later released.

Who is supporting the protests?

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the government led by his Progressive Party have spoken out in support of the protests in neighbouring Montenegro, while Vucic has called for dialogue between the SPC and the government in Podgorica.

The issue was discussed during a meeting between Vucic and his Montenegrin counterpart, Milo Djukanovic, on the sidelines of the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on January 22.

In Belgrade, SPC Patriarch Irinej has called on the Montenegrin government to annul the law. Serbs in the Bosnian city of Banja Luka have also protested in solidarity with the SPC, while in Belgrade fans of the Red Start football club marched on the Montenegrin embassy and launched fireworks at the Montenegrin flag flying from the building.

The Night Wolves, a pro-Kremlin Russian bikers group, has also expressed support.


Montenegrin Law on Religious Freedom: Polarization that benefits the government(s)?

By Sandra Maksimović

Protest of Serbian Orthodox Church supporters in Podgorica; Photo: Twitter / SavaJanjić

European Western Balkans (13.01.2020) – – Tensions surrounding the new Montenegrin law on Religious Freedom have been high for more than two weeks since the law was passed in the Montenegrin parliament at the end of December, directly affecting the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The issue also led to tensions between Montenegro and Serbia.


Although the countries separated in 2006, many of Montenegro’s citizens declare themselves as followers of Serbian Orthodox Church. Authorities in Podgorica and some members of the opposition supported the law, while the remaining opposition, including the pro-Serb Democratic Front (DF), strongly opposed it.


The day the law was being voted on, an incident occured in the Montenegro’s Parliament and 24 people including 18 MP’s from the Democratic Front were detained. Since then, there have been daily protests by citizens in Montenegro, largely by those who declare themselves Serbs, expressing dissatisfaction with the law.


Despite disagreements, the law came into force January 8. According to the disputed Article 62, religious communities in Montenegro need to prove property ownership before 1918, otherwise the property will belong to the state of Montenegro. That means that Serbian Orthodox Church must prove ownership of the property including medieval monasteries and churches, meaning everything built before December 1, 1918, when Montenegro became a part of Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia).


Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro pointed out that the law is “discriminatory and unconstitutional,” and accused the Montenegrin authorities of “inciting divisions and hatred”, while Bishop Amfilohije even said a civil war could ensue. The Montenegrin Government stated that Serbian Orthodox Church would still be able to use its property but that it should be known what state property is, and also warned that Serbian Orthodox Church is undermining the statehood of the state of Montenegro.


Divided opinions on the constitutionality of the law


Belgrade attorneys Milenko and Momir Radić filed an initiative last week to evaluate the constitutionality of the law with the Montenegrin Constitution and international treaties. Montenegrin analyst Boris Marić points out that there is a whole set of contentious issues in the law.


“First, the legal text itself contains a number of legal illogicalities, vagueness and conflicts of law. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of registration of religious communities, where no clear answer has been given and any discretionary decision has been removed as to who is obliged to register and who does not have that obligation”, said Marić.


Marić pointed out that the part which is placed in the transitional and final provisions, which currently concerns the Montenegrin, regional and international public at the most, and relates to the obligation to prove entry in the country’s property register, is in conflict with the legal system of the country, and therefore with the Constitution.


“Namely, the legal system of Montenegro is not insufficient in this part and it was not necessary to address it with the norms of the Law on Religious Freedom, and to produce the effect of re-regulation. In a situation where this law would be considered in practice as a lex specialis, it would, as written, produce a retroactive effect. In order for a legal text to have norms prescribing retroactivity, it must be enacted in a special procedure that would justify the public interest in introducing such norms into the country’s legal system”, stated Marić and added that if anyone wants to correct “historical injustice” there has to be a consensus in the society which can only be achieved through dialogue in democratic conditions.


Assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade Milan Krstić has a similar opinion stating that the initiative to review the constitutionality of the law is good and he hopes that the Constitutional Court of Montenegro will be able to make a decision impartially and without pressure from the executive branch.


“I believe that this law violates some of the fundamental principles of constitutionality of Montenegro without a dilemma. First of all, it is a property right, which is also guaranteed by international agreements signed and ratified by Montenegro, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Stabilization and Association Agreement. A simple transfer of church property built before 1918 into state ownership, made possible by this law, effectively nationalizes property that is not state property outside ordinary court proceedings, contrary to the opinion of the Venice Commission”, said Krstić.

Krstić highlighted that the burden of subsequently proving ownership is shifted to religious communities. More specifically, this applies only to the Serbian Orthodox Church, since other religious communities are protected by special treaties signed with Montenegro. Krstić explained that by comparison, it is as if you considered someone a priori guilty in the criminal process and then shift the burden of proving the innocence to the person.


“However, what is important to note is that the essential intent of this law and its proponents virtually negates another fundamental principle of the constitutionality of Montenegro, as well as all contemporary states – namely the separation of religious communities from the state. In this context, I find it unacceptable that top state officials publicly state as their goal the status of autocephalousness of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which is a par excellence ecclesiastical issue into which a secular state should absolutely not interfere”, Krstić concluded.


Incitement of divisions?


Amid tensions in Montenegro, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić cancelled his visit to Montenegro which was planned for Christmas Eve on 6 January. The decision was made after Vučić met with Patriarch of Serbian Orthodox Church Irinej for fear that “the Montenegrin authorities would use his visit to say it was an attack on independence and a constitutional order of Montenegro”.


The meeting between Vučić and Irinej came after Serbian Ambassador to Montenegro Vladimir Božović, following instructions from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, refused to receive a protest note from the Montenegrin Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Concurrently, the same reaction came from a Montenegro’s Ambassador to Serbia who also refused to receive a note from the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Nonetheless, speculations that the incident with the law was deliberately made ahead of the elections in both Montenegro and Serbia could be found in the media. Executive Director of the Politikon Network, a think tank based in Podgorica Jovana Marović thinks that this scenario could easily be true.


“The ruling Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro is running out of materials for rhetorical acrobatics and explaining that reform processes are successful, that the state is making progress in the EU integration process, and that the economic situation is getting better and better. For these reasons, this party often resorted to the tried and tested recipe for further division of society. Therefore, it would not be strange to do so now, maintaining the differences from the time of the referendum [held in Montenegro on whether the country should separate from Serbia] or even from 1918, instead of reducing differences by working on the concept of a civic and multiethnic state, which is advocated, but only on paper”, says Marović for EWB.


She added that this law can also be interpreted as part of a strategy to strengthen the pillars of the Montenegrin nation, which the President announced in his inaugural speech. Regardless of whether such motives exist, Marović concluded that the sharpened rhetoric suits the political elites in both countries in an election year.


Milan Krstić believes that the political scientist Vladimir Pavićević, the President of the Montenegrin Party, is right in pointing out that the adoption of this law was done, among other things, with the intention of further fostering identity divisions in Montenegro in order to draw public attention from issues of democracy and free elections in Montenegro right before holding regular elections.


“Such a mechanism is not unusual for both the Podgorica and the Belgrade authorities, which have repeatedly used the raised tensions over pressing issues (especially in the context of Kosovo) to draw attention from a particular affair or democratic deficit. An extremely large number of Montenegrin citizens of all nationalities, who through peaceful walks try to defend the civil rights and constitutional values ​​of Montenegro, are an excellent indicator of citizens’ attitude to this law”, said Krstić.


Opposed Appeals


Citizens’ attitude is also reflected in two appeals that have attracted attention across the region. The first was issued at the end of December under the name Appeal against Belgrade’s Threats to Peace in Montenegro and the Region, and was signed by 88 public figures from across the former Yugoslavia. Signatories accused Serbia of threatening peace and attempting to destabilize Montenegro.


In a response to this, the Appeal of the Academic Community and Civic Activists on the Adoption of the Law was published in Serbia, stating that the law is not adjusted “with the basic principles of the functioning of a modern democratic state”. Signatories of the appeal are led by Vladimir Kostić, President of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Milan Krstić looks at this appeal as an attempt by a number of members of the academic community and civic activists to inform the public about the events.


“Not only about the events, but also about many other shortcomings and problems of this law, including ignoring the right to acquire property by maintenance, as well as the whole way of adopting this law with numerous democratic defects”, said Krstić.


However, Appeal initially signed by 88 public figures now has more than 800 signatories.
“The Republic of Montenegro is a target of attempted destabilization by violent means: its peace, territorial integrity, constitutional order, the rule of law, citizens’ equality, and equal status of all churches and religious communities are under threat”, the public appeal argues.


On the other hand, the Venice Commission made its commentary on the law long before the current events. In 2015, Montenegro submitted to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe their proposal of a Law on Religious Freedom which would change the old Law on the Legal Status of Religious Communities from 1977, but the draft was shortly withdrawn due to numerous criticisms of the Commission. The revised draft was re-submitted in May last year, this time with positive evaluations from experts, but with the recommendation that religious communities be consulted with a view to reaching a joint decision before adopting the law.


The Venice Commission recognized precisely the Article 62 as one of the most controversial points. It stated that the state has the right to impose certain conditions on the use of property, but that it has to provide additional safeguards in court proceedings to prove the right to property of religious communities. Experts responded positively to statements by Montenegrin officials that the transfer of religious sites and land would not affect their use, but noted that it did not stem from the Draft Law.


Consequences for EU integration?


Experts EWB spoke to agree that this event could have consequences for both Montenegro and Serbia when it comes to the European integration.


“I sincerely hope that this crisis in Montenegro will be resolved institutionally – either by a decision of the Constitutional Court or by an amendment of this law by the Parliament. Otherwise, I believe that such a law could have consequences for the further European path of Montenegro”, Milan Krstić pointed out and added that that would not be in the interest of the stability of this region.


Boris Marić expressed the same concerns saying that this event could have consequences for both countries in terms of the EU’s insistence on pursuing a stable regional policy, which means interstate and regional cooperation that would demonstrate the capacity of our societies to be a part of the European space.


Jovana Marović concluded that regardless of certain inappropriate statements and activities, she wants to believe that our societies are mature enough not to be instrumentalized for the sake of anyone’s interests and strategy games.


MONTENEGRO: The threat to the right to survival of the Churches and religious communities

The Case of the Draft Law on Freedom of Religion adopted by the Government of Montenegro on May 16, 2019

Written statement made by The Legal Council of the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral – Serbian Orthodox Church at the UN Human Rights Council, published by Human Rights Without Frontiers on 26 August 2019.

At its 121st session held on 16 May 2019, the Government of Montenegro has determined the Draft Law on Freedom of Religion or Beliefs and Legal Status of Religious Communities in Montenegro. Before the Draft Law was determined, and even after this stage up to now, the Government of Montenegro has never initiated a public, continuous and institutional dialogue with churches and religious communities in Montenegro. The Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral and the Dioceses of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro submitted their objections within a 50-page report, to which we received no response, and these objections were obviously not taken into consideration.

The Article 62, paragraph 1 of the Draft Law contains the following provision: Religious buildings and land used by the religious communities in the territory of Montenegro which were built or obtained from public revenues of the state or were owned by the state until 1 December 1918, and for which there is no evidence of ownership by the religious communities, as cultural heritage of Montenegro, shall constitute state property. Paragraph 2 of the same Article states that Religious buildings constructed in the territory of Montenegro based on joint investment of the citizens by 1 December 1918, for which there is no evidence of ownership rights, as cultural heritage of Montenegro, shall constitute state property.

This provision, although unprecedented in the modern legislative practice of European states, is a classic example of confiscation (nationalization) of property held by the religious communities. The consequences of the possible adoption and implementation of the Draft Law which confiscates the religious facilities that were never under the ownership of the state – leaving the believers and priests without their prayer facilities, inciting religious violence and hatred and hindering the right to the freedom of religion or beliefs – in the complex Montenegrin society may be catastrophic.

The 2004 OSCE Guidelines clearly condemn abovementioned as it is an unacceptable practice of states which “use such laws to restrict religious communities from operating religious facilities” where “the justifications for restrictions may appear to be neutral, but are selectively enforced for discriminatory purposes “. This is also unambiguously confirmed in the practice of the European Court of Human Rights, which condemned any form, not only of direct confiscation, but in particular, indirect, de facto and confiscation of property by legislative means (amongst others, cases: Marckx case, 1979; Sporrong and Lönnroth case, 1982; Håkansson and Sturesson case, 1985; Akdivar and Others v. Turkey case, 1996; Loizidou v. Turkey case, 1996; Papamichalopoulos v. Greece case, 1993).

Provisions mentioned above are not based on any international instrument, nor on the Constitution or on the existing legislation of Montenegro. The existing Law on State Property of Montenegro (“Official Gazette of Montenegro” No. 21/2009 and 40/2011) does not stipulate that the State of Montenegro is the owner of sacred, religious buildings and land belonging to them. In addition, Montenegro has a Law on Expropriation as well as the Law on Property Relations which are applied when there is a dispute over ownership right, guaranteeing multilevel judicial protection to each legal entity. The matter mentioned above cannot be a subject of regulation in the Law on Freedom of Religion or Belief or in the Law on Legal Position of Religious Communities, so the provisions of Articles 62, 63 and 38, paragraph 2 of the Draft Law should be removed.

In the meantime, high state officials (President of Montenegro, President of the Government of Montenegro, Minister of Human and Minority Rights etc.) keep stating in public that the secular state of Montenegro should, through the adoption of the Draft Law on Freedom of Religion, become the sole and exclusive owner of temples, monasteries and other property otherwise lawfully belonging to the Churches and religious communities.

It should be borne in mind that the provisions of Articles 62 and 63 of the Draft Law are aimed at depriving the religious communities of exercising their right to restitution and indemnification of assets that were seized from them by the communist regime after the Second World War. At this moment, religious communities are discriminated, because they are excluded from the Мontenegrin Law on Restitution (2004) so they are only legal entity not recognized as eligible to receive restitution or indemnification for the property that was seized from them by the communist regime.

Furthermore, Article 19 of the Draft Law stipulates that “the registration of a religious community shall not be mandatory” and that “religious communities decide freely whether they will request to be entered into the Register or not”. The following provisions of the Draft Law hinder the full realization of the voluntary opting of the religious communities to acquire legal subjectivity. Namely, Article 28 of the Proposal of the Law makes a harsh division between “non-registered religious communities and the ones that are not recorded”, for which it is stipulated that they “shall not acquire or exercise rights that, in line with the legal order of Montenegro, belong exclusively to the registered or recorded religious communities”, and these are practically all the rights which are guaranteed to the religious communities by this Draft Law (Sic!).

To conclude, the most alarming issues regarding Montenegrin Draft Law on Freedom of Religion are:

(1) confiscation (nationalization) of religious property,
(2) annihilation of the previously obtained legal status of religious communities,
(3) systematic discrimination between the churches and religious communities,
(4) narrowing the scope of freedom of religion and belief and disenabling the equal status and rights of priests and religious officers, including the prohibition of the religious teaching within the elementary schools, and
(5) unilateral drafting procedure cleansed from every kind of public, institutional and/or inclusive dialogue.

It should be emphasized that in recent years, the priesthood of the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral and other Dioceses of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro has been subject to various acts of discrimination, hate speech, and even individual attacks. State authorities have not only failed to take measures to protect the priests and sanction the perpetrators, they have begun labeling the clergy of the Orthodox Metropolitan as enemies of the state. This characterization is unacceptable because it is completely untrue and, even more so, because it is extremely degrading and dangerous.

It is necessary the provisions of Articles 62 and 63 of the Draft Law to be deleted and a real dialogue on Law on Freedom of Religion to be opened in Montenegro. Otherwise, if adopted as it is unilaterally proposed, Draft Law is going directly to provoke hatred and serious conflicts that would include the entire population of Montenegro.