PODGORICA, Montenegro – Montenegro’s parliament adopted a contested law on religious rights early Friday after chaotic scenes in the assembly that resulted in the detention of all pro-Serb opposition lawmakers.
The vote followed a day of nationwide protests by supporters of the Serbian Orthodox Church who say the law will strip 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.
All but three lawmakers were later released. The three are suspected of attacking the parliament speaker and preventing him from performing his job, the state RTCG television said.
“We are ready to die for our church and that’s what we are demonstrating tonight,” opposition leader Andrija Mandic said shortly after midnight during the tumultuous session.
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 Serb-led Balkan kingdom and lost its independence.
The Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro described the law as “discriminatory and unconstitutional.”
The church on Friday accused the Montenegrin authorities of “inciting divisions and hatred,” and leading Montenegro “into a situation that cannot bring any good to anyone.”
“Thanks to this, the Orthodox Christian faithful in Montenegro are facing one of the saddest Christmases in recent history,” a church statement said. Some Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7.
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 recognized 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. About 30 percent of Montenegro’s population identify as Serbs and were mostly against the split from Serbia.
Hundreds of pro-Serb opposition supporters on Thursday staged an all-day protest against the law, blocking roads and entrances to the capital. Dozens of riot officers used metal barriers to prevent crowds, including Orthodox priests, from reaching the parliament building where lawmakers debated the bill.
The Montenegrin prime minister said the country has the power to prevent more rioting.
“I believe in peace in Montenegro,” Dusko Markovic said.