Montenegro adopts law on religion amid protests by pro-Serbs lawmakers

Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro believers take part in a protest rally in Podgorica, Montenegro, on Dec 26, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PODGORICA, MONTENEGRO (AP) - Montenegro's parliament adopted a contested law on religious rights after chaotic scenes in the assembly that resulted in the detention of all pro-Serb opposition lawmakers.

The vote early Friday (Dec 27) followed a day of nationwide protests by supporters of the Serbian Orthodox Church who say the law strips the church of its property, including medieval monasteries and churches. The government has denied that.

Trying to prevent the vote, the pro-Serb lawmakers hurled what appeared to be a tear gas canister, or a firecracker, and tried to destroy microphones in the parliament hall. Plainclothes police wearing gas masks intervened, detaining 24 people, including 18 opposition lawmakers.

"We are ready to die for our church and that's what we are demonstrating tonight," opposition leader Andrija Mandic said during the incidents.

The law, approved by 45 ruling coalition lawmakers, says religious communities would need to produce evidence of ownership of their property from before 1918, when Montenegro joined a Balkan kingdom.

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 recognised 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.

Hundreds of pro-Serb opposition supporters on Thursday staged an all-day protest against the law, blocking roads and entrances to the cities.

Dozens of riot officers used metal barriers to prevent the crowd, including Orthodox priests, from reaching the parliament building where lawmakers debated the bill.

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