PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Hundreds of pro-Serb opposition supporters on Thursday staged an all-day protest against a law on religious communities that they say will strip the Serbian Orthodox Church of its property.
Dozens of riot officers used metal barriers to prevent the crowd from reaching the parliament building where lawmakers debated the bill opposed by the Serbian church.
Police sealed off central Podgorica early Thursday. They said they banned the rally by the parliament building because it hadn’t been announced in advance.
No incidents were reported as the protesters, including Serbian Orthodox Church priests, held prayers and sang religious songs. Separately, pro-Serb protesters blocked roads in other parts of the country, local media reported.
The draft law says religious communities would need to produce evidence of ownership of their property from before 1918, when Montenegro joined a Balkan kingdom.
The Serbian Orthodox Church says the law will strip it of its property, including medieval monasteries and churches. The government has denied that.
In a statement, the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro urged calm and said it will complain to international organizations because of what it called a “brutal threat to the freedom of religion in Montenegro.”
Prime Minister Dusko Markovic met with Bishop Amfilohije, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, in an apparent bid to ease the tensions.
Bishop Amfilohije said after the meeting that the church is demanding the government postpone the parliamentary procedure until after Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7.
Markovic said he sought to assure the bishop that the law wasn’t directed against the Serbian church and that there is no “hidden agenda” behind it.
Montenegro’s population of around 620,000 is predominantly Orthodox Christian and the main church is the Serbian Orthodox Church. A separate Montenegrin Orthodox Church isn’t recognized by other Orthodox Christian churches.
Montenegro’s pro-Western president has accused the Serbian Orthodox Church of promoting pro-Serb policies and seeking to undermine the country’s statehood since it split from much larger Serbia in 2006.
Montenegrins remain divided over whether the small Adriatic state should foster close ties with Serbia.