Lawmakers In Montenegro Back Changes To Contentious Religion Law Amid Protests

PODGORICA, Montenegro -- Montenegro's parliament has approved changes to a controversial law on religion that had been sharply criticized by ethnic Serbs and the Serbian Orthodox Church.

A total of 41 deputies of the ruling coalition, comprised of pro-Serb parties and closely aligned with the Serbian Orthodox Church, in the 81-seat legislature backed amendments to the Law on Freedom of Religion in a vote early on December 29 that was boycotted by the opposition.

On December 28, several thousand people protested outside the parliament building in the capital, Podgorica, against the new government’s proposed changes, waving Montenegrin flags and chanting slogans such as “Treason” and “This Is Not Serbia.” No clashes were reported.

The rally was the first major protest in the Balkan country against the coalition government of Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic, who came to power after the opposition won a slim majority over the long-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) during August parliamentary elections.

Krivokapic hailed the vote in parliament as “a victory for the rule of law.”

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who heads the now opposition DPS, has seven days to sign the amendments into law or send them back to parliament. If the deputies vote for the amendments again, the president is obliged to sign them.

Under Montenegro's religion law adopted a year ago, religious communities must prove property ownership from before 1918.

That is the year when predominantly Orthodox Christian Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes -- and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church was subsumed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, losing all of its property in the process.

The Serbian Orthodox Church, its supporters, and pro-Serbian parties claimed the law could enable the Montenegrin government to impound church property, though officials deny they intend to.

The new government has proposed rewriting the law to ensure the properties stay in the hands of the church, which is based in neighboring Serbia.

Serbia and Montenegro were part of a federation until 2006, when Montenegro declared its independence.

Montenegro is a member of NATO and aspires to join the European Union.