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 said the law would strip the church of its property, including medieval monasteries and churches. The government has denied that.
Trying to block a vote on the measure, 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 officers wearing gas masks intervened, detaining 22 people, including 17 opposition lawmakers.
All but three of the lawmakers were later released. The three are suspected of attacking the Parliament speaker and preventing him from performing his job, police said.
Two of the arrested lawmakers were both sentenced in May to five years in jail for taking part in an alleged Russian-orchestrated coup attempt in 2016 against Montenegro’s then-prime minister and current pro-Western president, Milo Djukanovic. The two, Andrija Mandic and Ivan Knezevic, remained free pending their appeals.
“We are ready to die for our church, and that’s what we are demonstrating tonight,” Mandic said shortly after midnight during the tumultuous Parliament session.
The law, approved by 45 ruling coalition lawmakers, says religious communities with property need to produce evidence of ownership from before 1918, when Montenegro joined a Serb-led Balkan kingdom and lost its independence.
Serbia’s government did not immediately comment on the adopted law or the arrests. One of its ministers accused NATO of sanding behind Montenegro’s “anti-Serb regime” and said Serbia should take “all measures to protect” Serbs in Montenegro.
Montenegro became a NATO member in 2017 despite strong opposition from Russia and ally Serbia.
“This violence by the Montenegrin anti-Serbian NATO regime against the Serb people must not pass without a response from Serbia,” said Serbian Minister Nenad Popovic, who is known for his staunchly pro-Russian views.
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.
President Djukanovic 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% 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.
Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said the country has the power to prevent more rioting.
“I believe in peace in Montenegro,” Markovic said.