The new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro has been inaugurated, arriving by helicopter under the protection of police who dispersed protesters with tear gas.
The decision to anoint Bishop Joanikije II as the new Metropolitan of Montenegro at the historic monastery of Cetinje on Sunday has aggravated ethnic tensions in the Balkan state. Montenegro left its union with Serbia in 2006, but its church remained under the Serbian church.
Protesters had blocked roads since Saturday in a bid to prevent access to the small town, both the headquarters of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) and a symbol of sovereignty for some Montenegrins.
The SPC is the dominant religion in the state but its opponents accuse it of serving Belgrade’s interests.
And the government that assumed power at the end of 2020 is accused by its opponents of being too close to the church.
According to images released by the SPC, Joanikije and Patriarch Porfirije were dropped off by helicopter on the monastery’s lawn and rushed in under the sound of bells.
A security perimeter had been set up by police around the 15th-century building to protect the brief enthronement ceremony.
Police fired tear gas and sound bombs to clear the protesters from the monastery, some of whom threw rocks, bottles and firecrackers as the church figures arrived.
Montenegro’s deputy police director Dragan Gorovic told state TV that 20 officers were hurt, while a state clinic in Cetinje said about 30 civilians sought help for injuries.
On Saturday, thousands of protesters used cars or piled up rocks to block roads, with many spending the night huddled around fires set to keep warm, an AFP news agency correspondent said.
“I am here to show my love for the country,” said one protester, Saska Brajovic, 50.
“We are not asking for anything from anyone else, but we are dismissed by the occupying Serbian Church. We are here defending our dignity.”
The protesters are backed by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of President Milo Djukanovic.
The president accused neighbouring Serbia and the SPC of “dismissing Montenegro and Montenegrins, as well as the integrity” of his country.
Djukanovic had been eager to curb the SPC’s clout in Montenegro and build up an independent Orthodox church.
Western countries condemn violence
But in August 2020 elections the DPS lost – for the first time in three decades – to an opposition bloc led by SPC allies.
Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic, who is close to the Serbian Orthodox Church, has accused Djukanovic of having deliberately stoked the recent tensions for political purposes.
Krivokapic called on Montenegrins “not to give in to the manipulation” of those willing to risk conflict “in order to keep their benefits and privileges”.
The prime minister also described attacks on the police as terrorism. Djukanovic’s adviser Veselin Veljovic was arrested for participating in an attack against police on Sunday, state TV reported.
For his part, Djukanovic, accused the police of excessive force.
“Today we witnessed the embarrassment of both the church and the government,” Djukanovic said on TV.
The embassies of Germany, Italy, France, Britain, the United States and the European Union condemned violence around the enthronement of Joanikije II.
The monastery, where Montenegrin leaders sat for centuries until the end of World War I, is considered by SPC opponents the property of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which remains a small minority and is not recognised by the Orthodox world.
Metropolitan Joanikije was named to his new post in May, after the death of his predecessor Metropolitan Amfilohije from COVID-19 last October.
The protesters abandoned the blockades as the enthronement ceremony began.