By PREDRAG MILIC, Associated Press
CETINJE, Montenegro (AP) – Several thousand people demonstrated in Montenegro on Sunday against the planned investiture of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the small Balkan state.
Ethical tensions escalated during the ceremony scheduled for Metropolitan Bishop Joanikije II. Protesters in the former capital of Montenegro, Cetinje, where the September 5 inauguration is due to take place, waved Montenegrin flags and chanted slogans against the country’s government, accusing it of being pro-Serbian.
Hundreds of police have been deployed in the city and the United States Embassy has warned Americans to avoid the protest.
Despite calls for compliance with health measures related to COVID-19, most protesters did not wear masks and chanted âTreason! And accusing the government of having prepared the ground for Serbia’s “occupation” of Montenegro.
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Montenegro declared independence from the much larger Serbia in 2006. The country is deeply divided between residents who consider themselves Montenegrins and those who deny the existence of the Montenegrin nation. About 30% of the country’s 600,000 people identify as Serbs.
Joanikije II is to succeed the oldest former religious in the Serbian church in Montenegro, Metropolitan Bishop Amfilohije, who died in October after contracting coronavirus. The inauguration ceremony is planned for the Cetinje Monastery, which is considered to be the historic cradle of the Montenegrin state.
Leaders of the protest said they did not oppose the appointment of a new church leader, but oppose his induction into a shrine that symbolizes Montenegro’s centuries-old struggle for sovereignty and independence.
“We will not allow more desecration of Montenegrin shrines by those who do not recognize Montenegro as a state and Montenegrins as a nation,” Predrag Vusurovic, an organizer of the protest, told the crowd.
Joanikije said in a statement that it was “a pity” that his nomination was challenged.
“I am not sent by the church to Serbia, nor by its state,” he said. “I am not a foreigner. I was born in Montenegro, I am a citizen of this country.”
The Serbian Orthodox Church, Montenegro’s largest religious institution, has played a key role in a movement that helped defeat a long-standing pro-Western government last year. The church has led months of protests against this government’s alleged plans to confiscate its property, which Montenegrin officials have denied.
The old government had moved Montenegro away from Serbian and Russian influence. The Adriatic nation joined NATO in 2017 and is seeking to become a member of the European Union.
Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.
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