Demonstrators set up blockades on main roads ahead of planned inauguration of new head of Serbian Orthodox Church.
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Protesters clashed with riot police in Montenegro’s old capital, building barriers ahead of the inauguration of a new Serbian Orthodox Church head in the small Balkan nation.
The ceremony in Cetinje planned for Sunday has angered opponents of the Serbian church in Montenegro, which gained its independence from Serbia in 2006. Since then, pro-independence Montenegrins have advocated for the establishment of a separate Orthodox Christian church from the Serbian one.
For protesters, the upcoming inauguration of Metropolitan Joanikije is viewed as creeping Serbian influence – an attempt by Serbia to occupy the small Adriatic country or pull it into the so-called “Serb world”.
Hundreds of protesters confronted police in Cetinje on Saturday, briefly removing some of the protective metal fences around the monastery where the inauguration is scheduled.
The protesters broke through a police blockade at the entrance of Cetinje and threw stones at them, chanting “This is Montenegro!” and “This is not Serbia!” according to Montenegrin state tv RTCG.
Protesters built up barriers with garbage containers, car tyres, and heavy boulders to prevent church and state leaders from attending the inauguration, waving red Montenegrin flags with a double-headed eagle.
Al Jazeera’s Milica Marinovic, reporting from Cetinje, said protesters near a roundabout targeted the police with rocks and bottles, with the officers responding by throwing “some chemical substances, perhaps tear gas or pepper spray”.
“They [protesters] don’t plan on leaving … [On the blocked road] leading to Podgorica, protesters asked the women to stand as a human wall in front of the barricades of tyres for as long as possible,” Marinovic said.
Montenegrins remain deeply divided over their country’s ties with Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church, which is the nation’s dominant religious institution. Some 30 percent of Montenegro’s 620,000 people consider themselves Serb.
Despite calls made from the mayor of Cetinje as well as opposition parties to the government and church to cancel the inauguration due to the deteriorating security situation, the church says it will go ahead with the inauguration on Sunday morning at 8am at the Cetinje monastery, Marinovic said.
The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Porfirije, landed in Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital, on Saturday evening, and the Montenegrin authorities have urged calm during the weekend ceremonies.
Porfirije is expected to attend Joanikije’s inauguration, after Amfilohije, the church’s leader in Montenegro, died in October after contracting COVID-19.
On Wednesday, Montenegro’s Minister of Interior Affairs Sergej Sekulovic said that while he would try everything he could for the inauguration to proceed peacefully, the police could not guarantee that they would be able to provide absolute security in Cetinje for citizens.
Last year, the Serbian Orthodox Church played a key role in the demonstrations that helped topple Montenegro’s long-ruling pro-Western government. Pro-Serb and pro-Russian parties are now represented in the new government.
The previous government of Montenegro led the country to independence from Serbia and challenged Russia by joining NATO in 2017. Montenegro is also attempting to join the European Union.
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