Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Montenegro: Church Divisions Deepen

Tensions between supporters of Montenegro's rival Orthodox churches are escalating
By Milka Tadic

Montenegro's rival churches celebrated Christmas with displays of fisticuffs and shootings that have further polarised society in the run-up to a planned vote this spring on independence from Yugoslavia.


The 600,000 population is fairly evenly divided between the pro-independence "Victory belongs to Montenegro" coalition, under President Milo Djukanovic, and the "Together for Yugoslavia" alliance, which backs continued union with Serbia.


Supporters of a joint Serbian-Montenegrin state, strongest in the north, pledge allegiance to the Serbian Orthodox Church, SOC, while Montenegrin nationalists, strongest in the south, support the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, MOC.


The latter denomination is not recognised as "autocephalous" or ecclesiastically independent, by Serbian church authorities.


In January, when Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas, thousands of supporters of the SOC and the Together for Yugoslavia held rallies, waving Serbian and Yugoslav flags alongside pictures of Slobodan Milosevic and the old Serbian royal family, the Karadjordjevics.


Their pro-independence opponents also rallied in Cetinje, Niksic and Podgorica, displaying flags of the former Montenegrin royal family, the Petrovics, who ruled the independent kingdom until union with Serbia in 1918.


While most rallies went off peacefully, the two sides clashed at Berane, a pro-Serbian bastion in northern Montenegro, where 2,000 SOC supporters gathered on the Orthodox Christmas Eve on January 6 to stop around 30 Montenegrin rivals lighting a ritual Yule log.


Claiming it was a provocation, the SOC contingent, led by several priests and the local mayor Sveto Mitrovic, laid into the small crowd with axes and automatic weapons, chanting Milosevic's name with that of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader and indicted war criminal.


They also clashed with the police, ramming cars into their vehicles and threatening them with hand grenades. Police arrested several demonstrators.


A few days later, an explosive device was detonated in the apartment building housing the local police chief, Dragan Mazic, destroying his and several flats, though no one was injured.


Mazic complained his family had been threatened as a consequence of the police arrests and defended his conduct. "Had we not responded to the violence, there would have been bloodshed," he said.


Both sides blamed the rumpus in Berane on each other. "This incident shows that those in favour of the federal state are prepared for violent clashes," said Miodrag Vlahovic, director of the Podgorica-based Centre for Security Studies.


Mayor Mitrovic, however, blamed the police and state media, which had advertised the MOC assembly in Berane several days in advance, angering SOC supporters in the town.


"Some people had firearms and there was some shooting," the mayor admitted. But he said it was unfair for the police to have arrested so many SOC supporters in Berane, while leaving MOC supporters in Cetinje alone.


The government reacted angrily to the clash and turned the screws on the Serbian church.


Interior minister Andrija Jovicevic said the police in Berane had been provoked and physically assaulted. "They punched the policemen, they bore down on them with axes and even pointed the gun at one of them. There was also an attempt to detonate a hand grenade," he said.


The police then banned a planned SOC New Year's Eve celebration in Podgorica on January 13-14, citing the danger of clashes with two independent youth and artistic groups who had called for a simultaneous non-religious celebration at the same site.


In the event, SOC and Together for Yugoslavia followers gathered near a church not far from Podgorica's main square, holding pictures of Milosevic and Chetniks, the Second World War Serbian nationalists.


Bishop Amfilohije, SOC head in Montenegro, delivered a fierce speech, denouncing all those in favour of Montenegrin secession.


Although the event passed off peacefully, the pro-independence Social Democrats accused the Serbian Church and Together for Yugoslavia of spreading hatred and inciting conflict. The Liberal Party leader, Miodrag Zivkovic, said the bishop's speech "did not become a high-ranking church dignitary".


The pro-federation coalition has dismissed the comments and demanded the interior minister's resignation for banning the Podgorica rally in the first place.


Milka Tadic is editor in chief of Podgorica daily Monitor


More IWPR's Global Voices