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Montenegro: expert, law on Church linked to autocephaly

Djukanovic working on strengthening national identity

07 January, 12:58
(by Stefano Giantin) (ANSA) - BELGRADE, JANUARY 7 - The controversial law on religious freedom, which was recently approved in Montenegro, some perceive as a purposeful targeting of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro. The new legislation should be seen in the context of broader policies of Montenegrin political authorities, led by president Milo Djukanovic's, aspiring to strengthen Montenegrin national identity, writes a leading expert on theology in a new analysis seen by ANSA. According to Davor Dzalto, Professor in Eastern Christian Studies at the Stockholm School of Theology, "Djukanovic's vision of independent Montenegro and the new Montenegrin identity also includes the vision of an autocephalous 'Montenegrin church' which would be loyal to the Government." "Just as the Ukrainian political leadership was advancing the formerly uncanonical church structures and their autocephaly, in the hope that that would strengthen the Ukrainian national identity as well as the political elite which was championing the project, the Montenegrin leadership might hope that promoting one group, which would be loyal to one political project and obedient to the political authorities, would lead to the recognition of autocephaly of that group, with same or similar political results," Dzalto suggested.

"Hence the threat of confiscation of church property of the 'disloyal' church, which happens to be the biggest religious community in the country" Dzalto added.

The law, which was approved at the end of 2019 by the Montenegrin Parliament, foresees the creation of a register of religious properties. Moreover, religious groups will have to prove to have clear property rights on buildings, including churches and monasteries, before 1918, year in which Montenegro became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

According to critics and to the Serbian Orthodox Church, the law could allow the state to take control over its properties, a scenario that the Montenegrin authorities deny. The law is causing massive street protests and tensions in the country and beyond. Montenegro became independent from Serbia through a referendum in 2006.

The law also reflects the policies of the Western countries toward the region, the expert suggested. According to Dzalto, one can see here a more general pattern, followed in other parts of the world as well. "Western political centers turn a blind eye to violence, the autocratic style of rule and breach of various rights," as long as "the local political elites secure that the military, economic and political interests of those very centers are protected and advanced locally." There is, however, an important obstacle in attempts to establish an "autocephalous Montenegrin" church, and that is the lack of support from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which is trying to become the "highest arbiter in church matters" in the Orthodox world. Following Dzalto, "just as (neo)imperial policies of particular States try to manipulate local nationalisms, so does the Ecumenical Patriarchate, to its own advantage. In this case, however, there is awareness that right now there are no credible candidates in Montenegro to lead a potential autocephalous church, neither there is popular support for that project," the expert said.


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