In the streets of Niksic and Pljevlja on Wednesday evening May 13, tear gas jets responded to the anger of the demonstrators. More or less tense gatherings took place in several cities of Montenegro after the detention for 72 hours of Mgr Joanikije and seven other priests of the eparchy of Budimlje-Niksic, which belongs to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) .
They are accused of having organized the gathering of several thousand people on May 12 on the occasion of Saint Basil of Ostrog, an extremely popular festival among the Orthodox faithful in the region. The SPC synod and many of the faithful present on Tuesday said the rally was spontaneous and demanded their release.
The return of the controversial religion law
“It seems that we can prepare for a new opposition between the Church and the government”, commented the political scientist Ljubomir Filipovic on the social network Twitter. The SPC and the Montenegrin government have been clashing since last December over a new law on freedom of religion. The Serbian Orthodox Church, the country’s main religious organization, and tens of thousands of worshipers see the text as an attempt by the state to usurp SPC properties.
Last winter saw unprecedented protests in the country, independent from Serbia since 2006. But the arrival of Covid-19 and the measures taken to limit the outbreak of the epidemic in the country (officially 324 cases and nine dead as of May 13) ended these rallies. The demonstrators renewed this week’s movement this winter, chanting in particular: “We are not leaving our sanctuaries. “
Impatient devotees and politicians in the countryside
Jovana Marovic, executive director of the Montenegrin NGO Politikon, says that citizens are showing “Loss of patience”, while the dialogue started in February has also been interrupted by the pandemic. “Even if we can debate the relevance of organizing such a gathering of faithful on this date, it should be noted that during the crisis caused by the coronavirus, neither the opposition nor the government announced the resumption of negotiations around the law when conditions are favorable “, she notices.
Montenegro is above all in an important electoral year. “The government is using pandemic measures to choose the date that best suits it for the vote, while part of the opposition is using mobilization around this law for its campaign”, says Jovana Marovic, who is concerned about an atmosphere that is not conducive to democratic elections.
In the town of Pljevlja on Wednesday evening, participants threw stones at the police. Several dozen minor injuries were counted on both sides. New rallies were announced Thursday, May 14 in the evening.