Montenegro’s New Religion Law Has Christians Concerned

Image: Darko Vojinovic / AP
Protesters hold an Orthodox icon during a Belgrade rally held by the Serbian Orthodox Church in January to protest Montenegro’s religion law.

Deep within the Orthodox heartlands of the Balkans, one might expect local evangelicals to celebrate the passage of Montenegro’s first religious freedom law.

Instead, as tens of thousands fill the streets to protest against it, the relative handful of believers find themselves on the sideline of a struggle between giants.

And the stakes could further shake the greater Orthodox world.

Europe’s 6th-least evangelical country is also one of its newer nations. Having achieved independence from Serbia in 2006 through a tightly contested referendum, Montenegro is now seeking autocephaly—spiritual independence—for its local Orthodox church, viewed as a schism by the Serbian Orthodox.

Protests have erupted in Belgrade also, with thousands rallying last month against Serbian “suffering” in Montenegro and other neighboring nations. Crosses, icons, and church banners peppered the demonstrations.

But in Montenegro, rather than waiting for a liberating tomos (decree) similar to the one issued to Ukraine by Archbishop Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is the ecumenical patriarch for Eastern Orthodox communities, the government is acting to register all of its religious communities.

The protesting ethnic Serbian citizens of Montenegro fear the religious freedom law is nothing but a trojan horse for an elaborate ecclesiastic land grab targeting Serbian Orthodox Church properties.

“The law is a step forward, as it helps us ‘small religious communities’ have a legal basis to operate,” said Sinisa Nadazdin, pastor of Gospel of Jesus Christ Church located in the capital city of Podgorica and one of the nation’s five registered evangelical churches.

“But none of us want to enjoy this benefit if it will create in Montenegro a divided population, political instability, or potential violence.”

The law passed 45–0 in parliament, as the 33-member Serb-led Democratic Front boycotted the vote. Several MPs rioted within the chamber, and 17 were detained.

Church-led protests have been mostly peaceful, but Serbian Orthodox officials stated Bishop Metodije of Diokleia was assaulted by police.

“Do not expect us to go peacefully,” Bishop Joanikije of Budimlja-Niksic stated. “We will not arm ourselves, but we will defend our property with our very lives.

“When it comes to that, there are no rules.”

The essential features of the law, published by the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights, guarantee the right to change religion, to establish religious schools above the elementary level, and to conscientiously object from military service.

Replacing a 1977 communist-era law, it eases licensing procedures and permits foreign-born leadership and international headquarters.

But its final provisions for property registration fuel the accusations that the law targets the Serbian Orthodox.

Any land or buildings used for religious purposes prior to 1918 that do not have evidence of ownership will constitute state property as a cultural heritage of Montenegro.

Constantine, the fourth-century Roman emperor who issued the religious freedom–granting Edict of Milan, was born in modern-day Serbia. Southern Slavs, however, did not officially adopt Christianity until the ninth century.

The Serbian Orthodox Church was recognized as autocephalous in 1219, and it claims Montenegro was included within its territory.

Gains and losses in the Balkans by the Muslim Ottoman Empire shifted both political and ecclesial borders several times in the centuries that followed.

“Montenegro” was first used as a marker in the 15th century, and in 1905 it became an independent kingdom.

But in 1918 at the close of World War I, a Montenegrin committee deposed the monarch and integrated into the newly formed Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Two years later, the ruling regent ended what Montenegrin officials say was their own autocephalous church, placing it under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox.

In 1993, a renegade priest split and created a newly proclaimed Montenegrin Orthodox Church. Not recognized by any other Orthodox leaders, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) granted it status as a nongovernmental organization in 2001. (The FRY, consisting of the republics of Serbia and Montenegro, formed following the 1992 breakup of socialist Yugoslavia.)

And in 2018, the Montenegrin parliament officially invalidated the 1918 and 1920 decrees.

“The government wants to complete the process that started with the independence referendum,” said Nadazdin. “Promoting its own Orthodox church is another safeguard to preserve the Montenegrin identity as clearly separate from the Serbian.”

Nadazdin, an ethnic Serb, pastors a church of about 20 people. Members are primarily converts from among the Muslim Roma—commonly known as gypsies—of Kosovo.

The entire evangelical population of Montenegro is only about 200 believers. Less than half are citizens, and almost none of their leaders are.

Within Montenegro’s population of 620,000, only 45 percent are ethnically Montenegrin. Nearly 3 in 10 are Serbs. Bosnians and Albanians make up most of the rest, the largest part of the 17-percent Muslim community.

Orthodox believers make up 75 percent of the population, and, according to a 2009 poll, 70 percent of these identified with the Serbian Orthodox Church. Only 30 percent adopted the Montenegrin Orthodox body.

Stanisa Surbatovich, the only evangelical ethnic Montenegrin pastor in the nation, thinks the reality is higher than 30 percent. Though he believes the government is righting a historic wrong, he says most people have not been animated by the controversy.

“Until this recent religious law, most people identified themselves as Orthodox as part of their Slavic ethnic identity,” he said.

“Only the strongly political stressed the ‘Serbian’ or ‘Montenegrin’ aspect, and the average citizen is very confused by these demonstrations.”

Surbatovich, originally from California, came as a missionary in the mid-1990s. Born to Montenegrin parents and raised in the American parishes of the Serbian Orthodox Church, he appreciates the new law for its religious freedom provisions. Overall there have been few problems with government or church authorities.

Evangelicals are looked down upon as a sect, he said, yet partnered with the Serbian Orthodox Church to bring the renowned Montenegrin-descended evangelist Nick Vujicic of Australia—who was born with no arms or legs—to the area to promote handicapped access to churches in 2016.

Not that even the able-bodied attend regularly.

On an average Sunday, Surbatovich’s evangelical congregation of 25 people will represent more than 10 percent of churchgoers in Niksic, the nation’s second-largest city with an Orthodox population of 35,000.

Most haven’t even bothered to baptize their children, he said. And Thomas Bremer of the University of Muenster told Radio Free Europe that the Montenegrin Orthodox Church wouldn’t even have enough priests to populate the churches it wishes to occupy.

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Source: Christianity Today