Bishop Speaks About Explosive Rift Between Montenegro’s Parliament And Serbian Church

By Jovan Tripkovic

February 17, 2020

Bishop Joanikije
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the Eparchy of Budimlja and Niksic.

A fight broke out in the Montenegro parliament over a religious freedom law that some believe limits ties with the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and could allow the government to strip property from the church. During the fight, members of parliament hurled bottles and police wearing gas masks entered the chamber, arresting 18 parliamentarians in the early hours of Dec. 27, according to the BBC. Some members rushed the speaker of parliament saying they were “ready to die” for the church, according to Balkan Insight.  

Nearly all of those arrested were members of the pro-Serbian opposition Democratic Front (DF) party. The Serbian Orthodox Church accused the government, ruled by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) since 1991, of a flagrant attack.

Of those arrested, 15 were released quickly, but three leaders of the DF were held longer. Two of those arrested – Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic – were out on bail pending an appeal of a 5-year jail term for staging an alleged Russian-backed attempted coup in 2016.

“We have said we are ready to die for our church and we are demonstrating that,” Mandic said, according to the BBC.

Montenegro split from Serbia in 2006 but 70 percent of the nation’s 620,000 residents remain loyal to the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Serbian Orthodox Church supporters believe the new law weakens the church’s influence in Montenegro and could cause “civil war,” one bishop said, according to the BBC.

Under the law, religious institutions must prove they held property rights before 1918, when Montenegro lost independence. Some believe the law is designed to steer Montenegro away from Serbia politically and religiously. They believe it could tee up an independent Montegrin Orthodox Church. Both countries hope to one day join the European Union.

Protests demanding the repeal of the new law have led to clashes with riot police in the capital city, Podgorica, and allegations that police beat a Serbian Orthodox priest with batons.

One leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, Bishop Joanikije of Budimlja and Niksic has been active in the protests. He agreed to an interview with Jovan Tripkovic (also a member of the Serbian Orthodox Church) for Religion Unplugged. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Jovan Tripkovic: Your Grace, how would you describe the Law on Religious Freedom to people who are not informed about the current situation in Montenegro and who don’t even know where Montenegro is?

Bishop Joanikije: The goal of the Law on Religious Freedom is to politically restrict religious freedom and threaten the [Serbian Orthodox] Church itself. By doing this, many fundamental human rights, which are cherished by the Western civilization, are threatened… It is important to emphasize that the state of Montenegro threatens the right of the SOC to own property because it refers to property relations interpreted toward the goal of the government before 1918. This is unconstitutional because the constitution explicitly prohibits retroactive applications of regulations. Therefore, an approach with such legal norms is discriminatory and an unprecedented case in the contemporary world.

Tripkovic: What is, according to you, the essence of this law? Which article or articles do you find most problematic and why?

Bishop: Let us start with the facts. Namely, the state of Montenegro signed written agreements with the Roman Catholic Church, Jewish and Islamic communities several years before adopting this law and, among other things, confirmed their full and traditional legal standing. Not only were they enabled to continue their legal life undisturbed, but it was also acknowledged that these religious communities had full legal standing. The state also recognized their right to perform religious rites, establish religious schools, celebrate religious holidays, to have the right to restitution of property, peaceful ownership and acquisition of immovable and movable property. If all this is taken into consideration, it is evident that provisions of this new law apply only to the SOC… The subject is even clearer when it comes to Articles 62-64 of the law because they prescribe the method by which the ownership of immovable property will be transferred from its current owner to the state of Montenegro. The Government of Montenegro or the proponent of the law is the one that is going to engage in this proceeding of transfer of ownership. By doing this the constitutional legal order of Montenegro, which is defined as the state with the “rule of law,” is going to collapse… It shows the worst diversion from the legal order and principles cherished by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France [where the European Court of Human Rights is based].

Tripkovic: Do you think that the law has been drafted with the sole goal of targeting the Serbian Orthodox Church to establish new space for the development of a Montenegrin national (state) church?

Bishop: Absolutely. Besides, the ruling political party Democratic Party of Socialists and its president Mr. Milo Đukanović who is also the president of Montenegro, incorporated this plan in the long-term party program. He expressed publicly these same intentions several times. Therefore, it is not a secret that government intends to mark the canonical SOC, which has been present in Montenegro for eight centuries now, as “hostile” in its relation to Montenegro.

Tripkovic: Please tell us more about passing of this law and the political atmosphere in which this has been done.

Bishop: The law was adopted in illegal proceedings. Namely, the Government of Montenegro adopted the draft of the Law on Religious Freedom in 2015 and scheduled three public discussions. Out of these public discussions, two have not been held while the third one was organized in the capital of Montenegro with the presence of many members of police forces bringing an atmosphere of great tensions, without the slightest understanding of the need for dialogue and obligation to listen to all stakeholders’ arguments… The new draft was adopted by the Government of Montenegro in 2019, without any kind of dialogue with the Church and without involving it in the drafting process. This draft was sent for parliamentary vote without any previous public discussions, which could also be considered as a precedent in legal proceedings and practices, especially in regard to those prescribed by the state of Montenegro itself. The law sparked a severe public resistance because it was adopted with brute force, after 17 MPs were arrested by the police before the voting took place. Consequently, believers started massive and peaceful protests, religious processions or litanies, to demand the repeal of the controversial law.

Although the Church is not willing to comment on the political atmosphere, it is important to draw attention to the following facts: Firstly, the law was passed in the atmosphere of tensions and arrests of MPs in the Parliament. Secondly, the voting took place during Christmas and New Year’s holidays in the night between Dec. 26 and 27 at 2.30 a.m., which has not been recorded in the newer history of Montenegrin parliament… Therefore, we can agree that we cannot talk about dialogue, consensus, legality and democracy.

Tripkovic: Have the officials of the Montenegrin Government organized some kind of dialogue with the representatives of the largest and the oldest religious organization in Montenegro, the Serbian Orthodox Church?

Bishop: The dialogue involving all interested parties did not occur! There were isolated “attempts,” which were not held to show effort for preparing a just law which is equal for all but, in fact, were a manifestation of government’s power. It did not seem like a genuine effort to reach a consensus with the majority religion which will be primarily affected by the law, when the fact that other faiths regulated their relations with the state through bilateral agreements All in all, adopting of the law was done in an atmosphere of complete negation of the oldest and largest religious community in Montenegro. 

Tripkovic: Article 62 of the Law on Religious Freedom deals with property. Could you tell me how much of the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church is affected by this law? Do you have an idea on how this process of proving the property origin would go and what kind of documentation could religious communities use to prove their rights to the Montenegrin authorities?

Bishop: It is difficult to estimate the amount of property affected by this article because the law did not specify either the time period or the territory which would be affected, which has changed through centuries.

Also, it neglected two indisputable facts. Firstly, the people (citizens in the law) jointly built sacral buildings and donated to their church through centuries of its long life and existence… Second, real estate records and tax assessments were founded after the Second World War, so it is also impossible to prove that a certain sacral building was built from public revenue before 1918… 

This law resembles the mythical opening of Pandora’s box…  We are going to answer the question in numbers. The SOC in Montenegro has renewed more than 650 sacral buildings in only last 30 years. Most of these churches were built before 1918.  The law states that in case of confiscation of the property, it is at full dispensation of the State of Montenegro. Do you have any assumptions of what the government would do with it? Would they transfer the title to the Montenegrin Orthodox Church?

It comes to the most blatant unconstitutional decisions of the legislator and the abuse of power by the government beyond its constitutional authority. Article 14 of the Constitution provides for the separation of the Church and State, while the law imposes confiscation, which is a legal term for robbery. The law goes further, it provides for the right of the government to change the purpose of the property, to sell, donate, devastate, lease it to anyone, etc.  In other words, a government official, who doesn’t have to be a believer, will decide the fate of our churches and Holy Shrines. In that context, it is not impossible for the government to do exactly that: confiscate it from the church and give it to some other group such as an NGO whose representatives impersonate Orthodox clergy.

Tripkovic: The new law proscribes registration of religious communities during which the Government of Montenegro decides whether religious communities’ names are suitable. Do you fear that Serbian Orthodox Church might lose a part of its name in that process?

Bishop: You have noticed negative consequence of the registration procedure, with which the government, as proponent of the law and the executive authority that deals with registration, imposes not only… legal subjectivity but also a disruption of legal continuity for those churches and religious communities…. A disruption of legal continuity of the SOC would have two severe consequences: 1) Loss of its name (or imposition of the different one) and 2) Loss of legal entity status which it had at the time of adopting the law.

Tripkovic: Could you please tell us something more about the part that concerns religious institutions and education? Where is that motivation of the Government of Montenegro to bar religious communities from establishing primary schools and the ambition for a complete state control over primary education?

Bishop: The Secondary School – the Seminary of St. Peter of Cetinje – is the oldest educational institution in Montenegro. And behold the paradox, that only this school is not licensed by the Ministry of Education of Montenegro! It is sad, to avoid a harsher word, that a theology graduate cannot enroll in any university in Montenegro. In addition, I would mention the primary education. You are right. The legal norm you quoted, gives a “monopoly” on the establishment and operation of primary schools. A ban to primary education is in the spirit of the regime. Religion is considered a negative phenomenon, opium for the masses, in accordance with the communist doctrine. The law bans religion in schools, religious communities are banned from establishing private religious schools. Neighboring countries enable religious instructions to religious communities within public primary schools. Due to the aforementioned ideological reasons, the State does not allow for such possibility.

Tripkovic: Ever since the law was passed, Montenegro has been stricken with protests. Tens of thousands of citizens are on the streets. Who are all these people who express their dissatisfaction with this law? Furthermore, bearing in mind how massive these protests are, do you think that your Church is in fact the most vivid one in the Western world?

Bishop: It is not up to us to divide people based on their personal beliefs and choices, but what particularly moved all believing people in Montenegro, what forced them to seek lost rights on the street is an injustice that has not been seen in the civilized world so far. The danger to religious freedoms had to spark such wide civil unrest. The number of participants in processions and in prayers for the salvation of the holy temples (which is a right expression better than protests) is increasing by the day. So far it has reached more than 200,000 believers. Unfortunately, the greater the injustice, the more it hurts. On the streets are people of all ages. It is truly a miracle of God to see such peace among them. It is the yeast of eternal life sown by the Saints, from Saint Sava to Saint Basil of Ostrog and Saint Peter of Cetinje.  

Tripkovic: Apart from citizens and opposition, religious leaders of the largest Christian churches expressed their concern regarding this law. Please tell us who are these Christian leaders who supported the Serbian Orthodox Church?

Bishop: Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia and Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Tihon, primate of the Orthodox Church in America and Patriarch Onufriy of Kiev, all of them condemned this attack on Orthodoxy and expressed their support for the Serbian Patriarchate. Prior to legal process of adoption of the law, Pope Francis advised that the widest possible consensus of all interested parties should be sought through dialogue.

Tripkovic: Support of the most important Christian leaders, massive protests, opposition support — Do you think that all that is enough to make the Government of Montenegro to give up this law?

Bishop: If the Government of Montenegro listens to the voice of reason, it will be more than enough. However, we are convinced that they have a clear goal, as we mentioned earlier, and therefore it is not surprising that they persist in rejecting the valid reasons for withdrawing and repealing the law. Yet, it is up to us to try all legal means to bring to reason all those who insist on the law, which is not only unfair and does injustice to the Church, but can also seriously endanger legal order in Montenegro.

Tripkovic: Your Grace, how do you see the outcome of this situation which could also be considered a political crisis? Are authorities of Montenegro going to be ready for a dialogue with the Serbian Orthodox Church or are they going to decide to deepen this crisis? 

Bishop: It is very difficult to provide a precise answer to this question. Behind this problem is a massive political crisis. This is an election year, and no political structure (at least the ruling one) has an interest to deepen the crisis. However, we will leave the politicians to fight justly with their opponents and we will continue to defend our holy temples. The church is open to dialogue. All this time we are persevering the path to reconciliation, harmony and mutual respect. But, again, those who produced this law and this crisis should have a little more openness to hear the voice of the people, people who elected them. Dialogue is only possible if the discriminatory norms of the aforementioned law are suspended or removed. Any other way would be a false one.