Thousands have protested in Montenegro’s capital Podgorica against the new government’s efforts to change a controversial religion law that has stoked tensions over the country’s complex relationship with Serbia.
Chanting “This is not Serbia” and “Treason”, the crowd on Monday defied pandemic-related bans on gatherings to rally outside Parliament after the government proposed edits to the legislation that has divided the public for the past year.
The demonstration is the first major protest in the small Balkan country against the new government that came to power after winning a slim majority over a long-ruling pro-Western party at a parliamentary election in August.
Passed in late 2019, the law laid out a process that could see hundreds of monasteries run by the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) turned into Montenegrin state property.
But the new government, which is pro-Serb and closely aligned with the Church, is now proposing rewrites to ensure the properties stay in the hands of the SPC, based in Belgrade.
The protesters accused the government, which took power earlier this month, of trying to “erase the Montenegrin state and national identity”.
It was not immediately clear when the parliamentary vote on the religious law changes will take place.
While Montenegro declared independence from Serbia 14 years ago, their histories and cultures are deeply intertwined.
Around a third of the population of 620,000 identify as Serb while the SPC is still the main religious institution in the country.
Montenegro’s President Milo Djukanovic, whose party passed the original law, has been eager to curb the SPC’s clout in Montenegro and build up an independent Orthodox church.
But in August elections, his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) lost – for the first time in three decades – to an opposition bloc led by SPC allies.
The DPS steered Montenegro away from Serbia’s and Russia’s influence. The Adriatic nation joined NATO in 2017 and is seeking the European Union’s membership.