Литија испред Саборног храма у Подгорици

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Well, on now to: Politics, religious freedom, and the tension between the two.

That tension is on display now in a tiny country in Eastern Europe, Montenegro. And when we say tiny, we mean it: Population of the whole country is about the size of Louisville, Kentucky: about 600,000. Montenegro split off from next-door Serbia 14 years ago, and three-quarters of its people belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church.

NICK EICHER, HOST: That church is highly influential in the country. And the government in Montenegro isn’t happy about that. In December, Montenegro put in place a law that defines how religious groups can and cannot operate. 

WORLD Radio’s Anna Johansen has our report.

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: In Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, tens of thousands of people gathered on a recent Thursday. Some carried candles. Others sang or prayed out loud. They’ve been doing this every Thursday and every Sunday for the past six weeks.

They’re protesting the new law on religious freedom. 

VLADIMIR BOZOVIC: In my opinion, this is a brutal hijacking wrapped up in a law that is innocently referred as a religious freedom act. 

Vladimir Bozovic is a member of the Serbian Orthodox Church. He walks in the protests almost every single week. 

BOZOVIC: Honestly I cannot find any rational basis for the government’s actions passing such discriminatory law.

The law protects religious expression and bans religious discrimination. But it also includes a few controversial articles. 

BOZOVIC: If you read the law in its essence, then you see that their intention is to take some properties from the Serbian Orthodox Church without even civilized trial. 

The law says all churches in Montenegro must prove ownership of their property from before 1918. If they can’t, the state can take it over.

DOJIC: We are talking about churches from 12th and 13th century, right?

Constantine Dojic is a bishop in the Serbian Orthodox Church. There are about 700 orthodox churches in Montenegro. Many of them are ancient monasteries. Dojic says it’s unreasonable to ask for records dating back hundreds of years. 

DOJIC: When your presumption of guilt is the thing, not presumption of innocence…when burden of proof is transferred to the accused. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, right? That’s not the way to conduct law.

The law doesn’t explicitly target the Serbian Orthodox Church, but critics say, in practice, that’s what’s happening.

Vesna Bratic lives in Podgorica and regularly walks in the protests. She says this isn’t a law about religious freedom. It’s a political maneuver. Bratic points out Montenegro’s complex culture. 

VESNA BRATIC: In one single family, you have mothers and fathers who consider themselves Serbs and their children are Montenegrins or vice versa.

The Montenegrin government wants a stronger national identity. It has accused the church of fostering ties with Serbia and undermining national unity. But Bratic says the government just doesn’t like the amount of influence the church has. People trust the Serbian Orthodox Church. 

BRATIC: This is real power. People like the church, people believe the church because the church has never failed them. They do what they preach. Unlike the political parties.

Dragan Sljivic studies democracy and religion in the Balkans. He worries that this law might have consequences outside Montenegro. 

DRAGAN SLJIVIC: The immediate consequence of this law would be to introduce this principle into the set of European standards, which is even worse.

He says European legal systems often look for the precedent set by other countries.

SLJIVIC: So for example, if you wanted to reintroduce religious education and public schools, you would say, listen, we have this in Germany or in Austria. If you did not want to do this, they would say there is a precedent in, in, in France, they don’t challenge. So, uh, by allowing this to happen in Europe, there might be another government who come to a similar idea just to confiscate church property in 21st century. 

Sljivic hopes the protests will gain international attention. That way, other countries might start pressuring the Montenegrin government to rethink the law. 

So far, the government doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to the protests. On January 19th, the president of Montenegro said no one should expect him to withdraw the law.


But if the state does move to confiscate church property, Constantine Dojic doesn’t think they’ll get very far.

DOJIC: You have 200,000 people on the streets in a country that has 600,000 inhabitants. The same people that are on the streets will just flock into the churches and defend them. There is no police force strong enough, uh, to kick out half of Montenegro from the churches.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen.

Stealing churches in Montenegro