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Protesters have clashed with riot police in the old capital of Montenegro, setting up blockades before the inauguration of a new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the small Balkan nation.
The ceremony planned for Sunday in Cetinje has angered opponents of the Serbian church in Montenegro, which declared independence from neighbouring Serbia in 2006. Since then, pro-independence Montenegrins have advocated for a recognised Orthodox Christian church that is separate from the Serbian one.
For protesters, the upcoming inauguration of Metropolitan Joanikije is viewed as creeping Serbian influence – an attempt by Serbia to occupy the small Adriatic country or pull it into the so-called “Serb world”.
On Saturday, hundreds of protesters confronted the police in Cetinje and briefly removed some of the protective metal fences around the monastery where the inauguration is supposed to take place.
Montenegrin state RTCG TV said the protesters broke through a police blockade at the entrance to Cetinje and threw stones at them, shouting “This is Montenegro!” and “This is not Serbia!”
Waving red Montenegrin flags with a double-headed eagle, protesters then set up road barriers with rubbish containers, car tyres and large rocks to prevent church and state dignitaries from coming to the inauguration.
Al Jazeera’s Milica Marinovic, reporting from Cetinje, said protesters near a roundabout targeted the police with rocks and bottles, with the officers responding by throwing “some chemical substances, perhaps tear gas or pepper spray”.
“They [protesters] don’t plan on leaving … [On the blocked road] leading to Podgorica, protesters asked the women to stand as a human wall in front of the barricades of tyres for as long as possible,” Marinovic said.
Montenegrins remain deeply divided over their country’s ties with Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church, which is the nation’s dominant religious institution. Some 30 percent of Montenegro’s 620,000 people consider themselves Serb.
Despite calls made from the mayor of Cetinje as well as opposition parties to the government and church to cancel the inauguration due to the deteriorating security situation, the church says it will go ahead with the inauguration on Sunday morning at 8am at the Cetinje monastery, Marinovic said.
Montenegrin authorities have urged calm during the weekend ceremonies, which start with the arrival on Saturday evening of the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Porfirije, in Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital.
Porfirije is set to attend the inauguration of Joanikije, whose predecessor as the church’s leader in Montenegro, Amfilohije, died in October after contracting COVID-19.
On Wednesday, Montenegro’s Minister of Interior Affairs Sergej Sekulovic said that while he would try everything he could for the inauguration to proceed peacefully, the police could not guarantee that they would be able to provide absolute security in Cetinje for citizens.
The Serbian Orthodox Church played a key role in demonstrations last year that helped topple a long-ruling pro-Western government in Montenegro. The new government now includes staunchly pro-Serb and pro-Russian parties.
Montenegro’s previous authorities led the country to independence from Serbia and defied Russia to join NATO in 2017. Montenegro also is seeking to become a European Union member.