Montenegrin Police Detain 60 In Clashes Over Priests' Arrests

By RFE/RL's Balkan Service

Montenegrin police say about 60 people have been detained following clashes the night before during protests demanding the release of eight Serbian Orthodox Church clergy jailed for leading a religious procession despite a ban on gatherings because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Police late on May 13 fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protests against the detention of one bishop and seven priests in the towns of Niksic and Pljevlja.

Twenty-six policemen were injured during the clashes, police said in a statement, adding that one of the injured policemen has been hospitalized.

Prime Minister Dusko Markovic described the protests as a "brutal attack on the state that could have unforeseeable consequences on public health."

The clashes came a day after thousands of people attended a procession in Niksic without wearing face masks or maintaining a safe distance from each other in violation of measures to prevent the virus from spreading.

Montenegrin police said they used pepper spray to disperse the protesters into smaller groups after they threw rocks, bottles, and other objects and blocked traffic.

Police officers were "brutally attacked for no reason," the statement said, adding that an ax and a knife were found during a search in Niksic, while police property was destroyed.

Some of the people were detained in other cities where they tried to organize gatherings, including the capital, Podgorica.

Belgrade has strongly criticized the detention of the eight Serbian Orthodox Church officials, including Bishop Joanikije, which opened fresh religious and political tensions between the two neighbors.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said May14 that "we fail to comprehend" why Bishop Joanikije and other priests remain in detention. Vucic added that Serbia cannot interfere in any way but "will remain by our people and the church as much as we can."

Prosecutors said on May 13 that the eight face up to 12 years in prison on charges of violating virus restrictions.

Video and pictures from the procession show most participants didn't wear face masks or keep a safe distance from each other.

"They [the priests] are accused of the criminal offense of violating health rules in the prevention of a dangerous contagious disease," prosecutor Stevo Sekaric said in a statement.

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 Moscow-backed Serbia.

Serbian Orthodox 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 toward getting an official membership invitation from the European Union.

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

With reporting by AP and dpa