Montenegro Frees Serbian Church Priests Amid Heightened Tensions

By RFE/RL's Balkan Service

A Montenegrin prosecutor has released from detention nine Serbian Orthodox Church clergy whose arrest triggered a diplomatic row with Serbia and clashes between police and protesters.

The Serbian Orthodox Church clergy were detained on May 12 after they led thousands of people in a procession in the northern town of Niksic despite a ban on large gatherings because of the coronavirus.

Their arrest has inflamed tensions between the government and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro that were already strained over a religious law the church says would strip it of property in the country.

To the jubilation of hundreds of people waiting in front of the court building in Niksic, the eight priests and Bishop Joanikije were released from detention after 72 hours pending their defense before a judge.

Niksic, Pljevlja, and other towns have witnessed protests in recent days, leading to dozens of arrests and police officers injured in clashes.

Earlier on May 15, the metropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, Amfilohije, asked state authorities to release the clergy "if they think about their future, Montenegro, the unity and harmony of the people."

'Stop The Fratricide'

In an ominous message to people waiting in front of the courthouse, he suggested that by arresting the priests the government had set the stage for a civil war.

Amfilohije also said that it was time to "stop the fratricide" and reiterated that he should have been imprisoned instead of Joanikije.

"I am the main culprit here, if someone needs to be tried and sentenced, then there is no other in Montenegro but the metropolitan," he said.

Belgrade strongly criticized the detention of the church officials, which opened fresh religious and political tensions between the two neighbors.

Serbia's populist President Aleksandar Vucic said May 14 that Serbia cannot interfere in any way but "will remain by our people and the church as much as we can."

The arrests highlighted ongoing tensions between Montenegro's pro-Western authorities and the Serbian Orthodox Church, which they see as a tool for meddling by Russia-backed Serbia.

Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Irinej has said the detentions are "proof that the Montenegrin state is conducting a purge of the Serbian Orthodox Church."

Earlier this year, the Serbian Orthodox Church led weeks of protests in Montenegro against a religious law that it says would strip the church of its property in the country.

The law that came into force in January says religious communities must prove property ownership from before 1918, the year when Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and its church was subsumed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, losing all of its property in the process.

The Serbian Orthodox Church says the law is aimed at retaking its property. Montenegrin officials have repeatedly denied the allegations.

Montenegro split from Serbia in a referendum in 2006 and further turned away from Belgrade and its Orthodox ally Russia, taking a pro-Western course and joining NATO in 2017.

The country has also been negotiating steps toward getting an official invitation from the European Union for membership to the bloc.

Serbian nationalists in both countries have never fully recognized Serbia's separation from Montenegro, which they claim is a historic Serbian territory.