Protests erupted against the new Montenegrin government over religion law

Podgorica, Montenegro (AFP) – Several thousand people gathered on Monday in Montenegro, accusing the new government of the young country of being pro-Serb for its plans to amend the religious property law, which is vehemently opposed by the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Protesters carrying Montenegrin flags chanting “betrayal” gathered outside the parliament building in the capital, Podgorica, as lawmakers plan to discuss the proposed changes.

The demonstration was the first major protest in the small Balkan country against the coalition government that came to power after the opposition won a slim majority over a long-standing pro-Western party during parliamentary elections in August.

Religious property law was an issue in the elections. The Serbian Orthodox Church claimed that the law aims to strip the church of its property, which was denied by the previous government. The church led months of protests that helped strengthen the opposition ahead of the elections.

Montenegro declared its independence from the union with Serbia after a referendum in 2006. The country’s population is still divided over relations with Belgrade. About 30% of the people of Montenegro identify themselves as Serbs, and the Serbian Orthodox Church has the largest number of adherents of any organized religion.

The previous government, led by the Democratic Party of Socialists, distanced Montenegro from the influence of Serbia and Russia. The Adriatic country joined NATO in 2017 and is seeking membership in the European Union.

Participants in Monday’s demonstration criticized the new government’s plan to repeal portions of religious law that deal with property. They accused the government of paving the way to “occupy” Montenegro.

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It was not immediately clear when the parliament would vote to amend the law.

Despite calls for adherence to measures to curb the spread of the Coronavirus, protesters rallied together, many without masks. Montenegro has reported 666 deaths from the virus in a country of 620,000 people.

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