Montenegrins protest inauguration of new Serbian church head

A protester, wearing a traditional hat applauds during a rally in Montenegro’s former capital, Cetinje, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. Several thousand people demonstrated on Sunday in Montenegro over the planned inauguration of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the small Balkan state. (AP Photo/Risto Bozovic)

CETINJE, Montenegro (AP) — Several thousand people demonstrated Sunday in Montenegro over the planned inauguration of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the small Balkan state.

Ethic tensions have soared over the scheduled ceremony for Metropolitan Bishop Joanikije II. The protesters in Montenegro’s former capital, Cetinje, where the Sept. 5 inauguration is to take place, waved Montenegrin flags and chanted slogans against the country’s government, accusing it of being pro-Serb.

Hundreds of police officers were deployed in the city and the U.S. Embassy warned Americans to avoid the protest.

Despite calls to respect COVID-19 health measures, most protesters did not wear masks while chanting “Treason!” and accusing the government of setting the stage for the “occupation” of Montenegro by Serbia.

Montenegro declared independence from the much larger Serbia in 2006. The country is deeply split between residents who consider themselves Montenegrins and those who deny the existence of the Montenegrin nation. About 30% of the country’s population of 600,000 identifies as Serb.

Joanikije II is to succeed the Serbian church’s previous most senior cleric in Montenegro, Metropolian Bishop Amfilohije, who died in October after contracting coronavirus. The inauguration ceremony is set for the Cetinje Monastery, which is considered the historic cradle of Montenegrin statehood.

Protest leaders said they do not oppose the naming of a new church leader but are against his enthronement in a shrine that symbolizes Montenegro’s centuries-old struggle for sovereignty and independence.

“We will not allow further desecration of Montenegrin shrines by those who don’t recognize Montenegro as a state and Montenegrins as a nation,” Predrag Vusurovic, a protest organizer, told the crowd.

Joanikije said in a statement that it’s “a shame” that his inauguration is being challenged.

“I’m not being sent by the church in Serbia, nor by its state,” he said. “I’m not a foreigner. I was born in Montenegro, I’m a citizen of this country.”

The Serbian Orthodox Church, the largest religious institution in Montenegro, played a key role in a movement that helped defeat a long-ruling pro-Western government last year. The church led months of protests against alleged plans by that government to take away its property, which Montenegrin officials denied.

The former government had steered Montenegro away from Serbian as well as Russian influence. The Adriatic nation joined NATO in 2017 and is seeking European Union membership.

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Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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