Father Drago Pešikan (Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro) facing police chief in Herceg Novi
In January 2019, when the Ecumenical Patriarch granted autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church, it was clear that this would create a domino effect in other regions of the world experiencing ecclesiastical divisions and ongoing aspirations for church recognition. This is especially the case in the Balkans, where the political elites in Montenegro and North Macedonia—inspired by Petro Poroshenko’s success in Ukraine—decided to step up, develop their own strategies, and push hard for autocephaly. This prompted open conflict with the Serbian Orthodox Church, whose canonical jurisdiction stretches to both countries.
The Montenegrin political leadership decided to tie the autocephaly issue with the church property question through the adoption of the controversial Law on Religious Freedoms on December 27, 2019, according to which all religious property built pre-1918 should become the property of the state if the religious organisation occupying the same is not able to provide proof of ownership.
This has sparked massive protests across Montenegro, organised by the Serbian Orthodox Church on the basis of a belief that this law is directed against its presence in Montenegro and is the means by which the state intends to take away most of its property. Judging by the numerous recent pro-autocephaly statements of President Đukanović (see here and here), some voices in the Serbian Orthodox Church fear that this law will ultimately allow the Montenegrin secular leadership to gain the upper hand in ecclesiastical matters by diminishing the position which the Serbian Orthodox Church retains in Montenegrin society, and transferring some of its property to the much smaller and unrecognised Montenegrin Orthodox Church. This, in turn, further strengthens the cause of the latter’s autocephaly. For those supporting the idea of an independent Montenegrin Church, the adoption of the law is seen as a precondition to the fulfilment of that goal.
The Serbian Orthodox Church enjoys wide support across Montenegro, where the majority of citizens adhere to the Orthodox Church. After the independence referendum in 2006 and the formal breaking of ties with Serbia, the Montenegrin political elites decided to engage more actively with identity politics, in which the Church has traditionally played an important role.
A more concentrated effort to do this happened in November 2018, after the Montenegrin parliament adopted a resolution through which it abolished the 100-year old “1918 Podgorica Assembly decision” to enter into union with Serbia. The current Montenegrin leadership sees this date in history [that of the 1918 decision] as being when Montenegro was forcibly incorporated into union with the Kingdom of Serbia, being annexed by Serbia and involving not only the disappearance of Montenegro as a separate state, but also as the disappearance of what some in Montenegrin society consider to be autocephalous Montenegrin Orthodox Church.
The current Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which was established in 1993, claims to be the successor of the historic Montenegrin Orthodox Church. It has struggled for the past 25 years to establish itself in Montenegrin society, given the dominant position that the Serbian Orthodox Church enjoys and the lack of state support that the Montenegrin Orthodox Church received until recently. The Serbian Orthodox Church has strongly opposed its existence, calling it a “sect registered in a police station” in an attempt to belittle it.
Other influential actors in the Orthodox world have not been sympathetic either. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in an interview with the Serbian tabloid Kurir in December 2019, called it a “fake church.” The head of this church, Miraš Dedeić, known to the Montenegrin Orthodox Church faithful as “Metropolitan Mihailo,” has been defrocked and excommunicated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The only external support he received came from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate and Patriarch Filaret, who visited Montenegro and concelebrated with Metropolitan Mihailo in 2010, and through whose offices several priests of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church have received their theological education in Kyiv.
However, this mutual support has ended with the formation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the sidelining of Filaret. Being isolated abroad and at home, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church is facing many challenges, such as the shortage of priests, theological education, church infrastructure, numbers of adherents, etc. This has negatively affected the Montenegrin public’s perception of it.
In contrast, the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro has topped the polls as one of the three most trusted institutions in Montenegro. With its large base of believers, backing from the international Orthodox community, and strong ties with Serbian opposition parties in Montenegro, the Serbian Church has profiled itself as a strong political actor in Montenegrin society, thereby putting itself on a collision course with the official authorities.
Examples are numerous and include strong opposition to the country’s foreign policy choices, such as the recognition of Kosovo’s independence (2008) or accession to NATO (2016), but also escalating local conflicts into full-blown church-state confrontations such as the one in the spring of 2019 over the illegally built baptistery in Prevlaka (Tivat), forcing the state authorities to back down and abandon the plans to move the site. This lethargic move by the government has reminded many of the illegal placement of a prefabricated church, with the support of army helicopters, on the Rumija mountain in 2005 and the tacit acceptance of this act by the state authorities.
With these actions the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro has created itself as a strong opposition force fit to challenge Europe’s longest serving ruler, Montenegro’s President Milo Ðukanović.
The most recent retreat of the government over the baptistery in Prevlaka was not the only setback to Ðukanović rule. In 2015, after negative public reaction and unsuccessful public consultations which were hijacked by the Serbian Orthodox Church in two Montenegrin cities (Kotor and Bijelo Polje), the Montenegrin government withdrew the original draft Law on Freedom of Religion which was supposed to replace the one from 1977.
At the heart of this controversy relating to the law is the opinion of the Venice Commission, which is an advisory body of the Council of Europe providing legal advice on proposed legislation. Its initial negative response to the draft law in 2015 played an important part in the government’s decision to withdraw it. Having undergone some changes, in 2019 the Montenegrin authorities consulted the Venice Commission once again about the new version of the law, and after receiving its backing they were resolute that the law should be adopted by the end of 2019.
The most problematic aspects of the law for the Serbian Orthodox Church—the possibility of effective property nationalisation—remained in the new version of the law. This prompted the Serbian Orthodox Church to organise large-scale church laity gatherings around the country, resulting in heightened tensions with neighbouring Serbia. In order to gain more traction, the Serbian Orthodox Church even decided to bring the relics of Saint Basil of Ostrog to the central gathering in Nikšić on December 21, 2019.
While the property question may seem to be of a domestic nature, the wider Orthodox community has been steadily showing support for the actions of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro while tying the developments in Montenegro to wider Orthodox challenges. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate backed Metropolitan Amfilohije of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, while at the same time utilising the Montenegrin case to advance their narratives and agenda on Ukrainian ecclesiastical affairs and Russian Orthodox Church standing internationally. For both Churches, the developments in Montenegro are reminiscent of recent ecclesiastical developments in Ukraine, but the UOC-MP went a step further and pointed a finger directly at the Ecumenical Patriarch and his actions in Ukraine as having ripple effects in Montenegro.
While the UOC-MP seems focused on the blame-game, the Ecumenical Patriarch has shown extraordinary support for the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, intervening early in the debate on the Freedom of Religion Law and shattering Ðukanović’s ambitions to establish an independent church by sending him a letter in June 2019. In this letter Bartholomew states that the only canonical jurisdiction in Montenegro is the Serbian Orthodox Church headed by Metropolitan Amfilohije, and that the Montenegrin Orthodox Church was never an autocephalous Church. Moreover, he points out that the current head of the Montenegrin church structure, Metropolitan Mihailo, does not belong to the Orthodox Church.
Support for the Serbian Orthodox Church has also come from Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem. The Russian Orthodox Church urged all regional Orthodox Churches to support the canonical Serbian Church in Montenegro, hinting here at the Albanian, Bulgarian, and Romanian Churches and the Church of Greece.
It seems that Montenegrin ecclesiastical developments have managed to make the impossible possible, that is, to unite the stark opponents—Moscow and Constantinople—in supporting the Serbian Orthodox Church.
More importantly, while in the short term Đukanović will receive a lot of domestic praise from Montenegrin Orthodox Church supporters due to the adoption of the Law on Religious Freedoms, his autocephaly ambitions will have to be put on hold for the time being due to the external blockade by the wider Orthodox community.
Andreja Bogdanovski is a PhD candidate at the University of Buckingham, UK, where he studies church autocephaly movements across Eastern Europe and the Balkans. See his The Russian Orthodox Church’s Battle with Time: Reflections on the Patriarchate of Alexandria’s Recognition of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He tweets @BogdanovskiA.