Religious War in Montenegro? Why and against Whom? What Does Ukraine Have to Do with It?

On the night of December 27th tens of thousands of citizens descended upon the streets of the cities of Montenegro, blocking the main roads.

In the capital of Podgorica alone 2,000 believers went to the procession. At 03:00 they were stopped by a police barrier on the central city bridge, where the standing prayer continued.

In the famous resorts of Budva and Herceg Novi the spontaneous impulse was supported by the city authorities. At the same time, the police beat up the blessed protesters Bishop Metodija, abbot of the Monastery of the Nativity of the Virgin in Cetinje, one of the most visited in Montenegro.

The Law “On Freedom of Religion and Belief and the Legal Status of Religious Communities” adopted by Parliament caused the unrest. The authorities (represented exclusively by anti-Serb politicians) do not hide that this act is directed exclusively against the Serbian Orthodox Church, the only canonical structure operating in Montenegro.

What is the essence of the anti-church law

According to the adopted act, Orthodox temples, monasteries, and other religious objects built before December 1st 1918 can be transferred to state property. This will happen if the religious community does not prove ownership of the facility. Legislators found “justification” for this in the acts of the Principality and the Kingdom of Montenegro (1852 – 1916). According to them, the state was obliged to support religious facilities financially at that time.

Opponents of the law put forward the following counter-arguments.

1. The vast majority of the 700 hundred Orthodox temples of Montenegro by the specified period have long been (since the 4th century AD) built by the church. And even in the second half of the 19th century, in case of additional state assistance, they were built mainly with funds from the same Serbian church and its believers.

2. The legal registration of religious objects was not kept until the 19th century, or documents on ownership were not preserved in the past centuries.

3. A significant number of temples have nothing to do with the Principality and Kingdom of Montenegro at all, since from 1852 to 1916 they were on the territory of other states (for example, the whole region of Kotor Bay up to Budva).

4. Extensive (by Montenegrin standards) territories to the north of Mojkovac became part of the country only in 1913, i.e., only 3 years before the actual end of existence of the Kingdom of Montenegro.

However, these arguments have no effect for the main reason that the adoption of the law is an act of political will. “Our task is the revival of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church,” said President Milo Đukanović of Montenegro. At the same time, he is a committed atheist (former member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, a descendant communist, and therefore, naturally, not even baptised).

The “Montenegrin Orthodox Church” (“MOC”) is an self-proclaimed structure unrecognised by world Orthodoxy – an analogue of the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate” (“UOC-KP”). The history of “MOC” also begins in the 1990s. It is headed by Miraš Dedeić. He was removed from the Moscow Theological Academy at one time. Without being accepted into the clergy of the Serbian Church, Dedeić moved to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, but was soon banned from serving there. During these years, his wife accused him of treason and dissolved their marriage. His unmarried status opened the way for Dedeić to the “bishops” of the so-called “Bulgarian Patriarchate,” another unrecognised entity now abolished by the Bulgarian Authority.

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As of 2015 there were 25 “priests” in the “MOC” (almost all were dismissed from the Serbian Church for various reasons). But as early as 2007, this structure stated that “it starts to fight for the return of all religious objects used by the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro built before 1920 or financed from the budget of Montenegro after that date.”

Obviously, it is precisely because of the political will and open lobbying of the “national church” that the law signed by Đukanović sets out norms that directly contradict national legislation. Thus, in order to simplify and accelerate nationalisation as much as possible, disputes about church property will be decided not by the court, but by the state administration on real estate.

In addition, the confiscation of church property that was taken away from the Serbian Church during communist Yugoslavia was automatically extended.

What became the detonator of the riot

The parliamentary majority, led by the Speaker, rejected absolutely all 117 amendments made to the law by the opposition. Even the amendment that proposed to be guided by the Constitution of Montenegro and ratified international treaties was not passed. The session was broadcasted on the assembly’s website, and with each rejected amendment, the situation in society (and more than 80% of Montenegrins refer to themselves as the canonical church) heated up. The explosion of resentment occurred after the Speaker of the Assembly Ivan Brajović refused to postpone the session to the next day, apparently fearing that the day of mass protests would be an order of magnitude higher. The protest of lawmakers who opposed the law was immediately neutralised: several dozen “people in plain clothes” arrested all 18 deputies of the opposition coalition “Democratic Front” and five administrative employees of the parliament.

It should be said that before this someone threw an opened canister of tear gas into the hall. The leader of the Montenegrin movement “Anti-NATO” Igor Damianović believes that it was a provocation of the special services: “Zoran Lazovic – the long-standing power broken of the security service – spent all day in the building of the assembly. According to the Belgrade newspaper ‘Informer’, Lazovic in the corridor of the parliament slapped the head of the government Duško Marković, ‘upset’, as it is said, by the fact that Marković went to negotiations with the Metropolitan of Montenegro and the Littoral Amfilohije.”

The well-known Montenegrin lawyer Zoran Cvorović states that the conflict involves not only the security service, but also the “Đukanović mafia, which controls the trade in drugs and real estate.” And probably, the attempt to assassinate the most popular Montenegrin opposition Miodrag Davidović, considered as the likely leader of the protests, is “their handiwork”. The fact is that on the eve of the consideration of the Law, the Church convened on December 21st the so-called Church-People’s Sobor. Despite the heavy rain, it was supposed to be held on the square in front of the cathedral – up to 20,000 believers gathered.

It was known in advance that at the Sobor there will be a church benefactor and sponsor of the museum “Stari Brod”, dedicated to the victims of Ustaše terror, entrepreneur Davidović. But on December 11th he was wounded by a sniper. “The perpetrators of the assassination attempt against Davidović have not yet been brought to justice, and the almost total absence of traces, the burned weapons, and the car in which they fled point to a serious organisation,” said Igor Damianović.

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Precedent for Ukraine?

In 10 months Montenegro is supposed to hold a parliamentary election, and the anti-church law cannot but hit the approval rating of the party in power, because the Serbian Church is an institution trusted by the majority of citizens of the state. So why did such a political dinosaur of Balkan scale as the recognised pragmatic Đukanović push through this act? The answer should apparently be sought in a visit to Montenegro a month ago by Sam Brownback, United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

This is the same Brownback who visited Fener last year four days before Bartholomew received Poroshenko and the Verkhovna Rada’s petition for “autocephaly of the Church of Ukraine”. The same Brownback back then personally assured Poroshenko and then-Speaker Parubiy that the US would be happy to help implement the decision to create a “sole local church”.

And it was after Brownback’s visit to Montenegro that the Law On Religious Freedomappeared on the agenda of the Parliament, rapidly passing through all committees. Although the first public hearing on the bill was held back in 2015, the bill was withdrawn in June this year.

Strategically, the weakening of the Serbian Orthodox Church benefits both the United States (after all, the SOC firmly supports the Russian Church in its opposition to Fener) and the Serbophobe Đukanović (the Montenegrin parishioners of the SOC continue to consider themselves Serbs rather than a separate Montenegrin nationality). Consequently, the Serbian Church in Montenegro is seen as a naturally established agent of influence of the “Serbian World”. But the urgency, most likely, is that right now – against the background of Belgrade’s deepening of relations with Moscow, Serbia is increasingly declaring itself an independent player in the Balkans – for the first time since the 1990s, when the Russian Federation, due to its own weakness, could not be an ally.

As for the reality of the recognition of the “MOC” by Fener, this is possible at any moment (for example, if the participants of the inter-Orthodox meeting scheduled for February under the chairmanship of the Patriarch of Jerusalem finally take the side of Moscow on the issue of non-recognition of the “OCU“). Yes, Bartholomew has made several statements in the last couple of years in support of the unity of the Serbian Church, but until 2017 he made the same statements in support of the only canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) in Ukraine. This did not prevent him from declaring in 2018 that the UOC (MP) was not canonical in Ukraine.

And if the model of the recognition of the “OCU” can quite be used for the recognition of the “MOC”, the experience of the implementation of the Montenegrin Law “On Freedom of Religion” can be quite used by the Ukrainian authorities after the final entry into force of the Ukrainian Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations (whose center of administration is located in a country recognised as an aggressor by the Parliament of Ukraine)”. The law is currently suspended by a decision of the Supreme Court, but if the initiators of the law return to power in Ukraine, it is unlikely that the court will continue to delay making a final decision.

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Poroshenko has repeatedly stated in the last presidential campaign that “the Russian Church has no business in Ukraine”. And the “Bloc of Petro Poroshenko” lawmakers were even more outspoken.

The Moscow Patriarchate also sees the similarity between the situations with the Ukrainian and Montenegrin laws. “The Serbian Church, commenting on the adoption of this law, noted that it was adopted in order to give their temples to Montenegrin schismatics,” said the Secretary of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate Igor Yakimchuk. “Now they (“MOC”) have practically no support from the people. Nobody goes to them. But if you take the temples from the canonical church and give them to the schismatics, then someone may come to these temples out of habit. This situation is very similar to what happened in Ukraine.”

But in Montenegro, not everyone believes that this is the first task of the authorities. “Đukanović does not intend simply to take and forcibly seize holy sites to hand them over to the so-called Montenegrin Orthodox Church,” assures Professor Cvorović. In his opinion, the Law is a lever of pressure on the Montenegrin Metropolitan of the Serbian Church “to bring it to a state of complete uncertainty – legal and financial defencelessness and, at the same time, to a state of dependence on the mercy of individual representatives of the state power.”

“The dioceses of the Serbian Church in Montenegro will be formally deprived of ownership of the most important temples, the largest shrines, as well as the largest sources of income, as the Serbian Church will be taxed under the Law. In addition, the persecution of priests and monks who are not native to Montenegro will continue,” concludes the lawyer.

And already before the adoption of the Law, about fifty SOC priests were expelled from Montenegro to Serbia.

Will it be possible to liquidate the Canonical Church?

The Prime Minister of Montenegro, Duško Marković, after meeting with Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro (the very fact of which caused the Security Service to be dissatisfied and resulted in an incident on the sidelines of parliament), revealed the content of that conversation: “I asked the Metropolitan, does he really think that the state will not have the strength to stop and smash the illegal intervention on its territory. We have that strength – we can do it in one day, in one night.”

Will the blitzkrieg succeed?

Even now self-defence forces are being organised at each parish. Therefore, all of this can result in a protracted confrontation. “This can happen in the very near future, when the authorities of Montenegro will try to take away any temple from the Serbian Orthodox Church. Especially if it’s some well-known temple. For example, Cetinje Monastery or Ostrog Monastery,” said the Balkans specialist Oleg Bondarenko. “In this case, parishioners will stand up in defence and will stand until the end. And no police will simply disperse them. And given that this is the Balkans, and people there have a lot of weapons, they won’t come empty-handed. So Đukanović opened a Pandora box.”

Dmitry Skvortsov

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