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Montenegro police fire teargas at protesters opposed to Orthodox Church leader’s inauguration

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Montenegrins from the town of Cetinje gather at a barricade near the entrance of the city, on September 4, 2021, to protest against the enthronement of the new bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro. (Photo by AFP)

Montenegro police have fired teargas to disperse protesters opposing the appointment of a Serbian Orthodox Church cleric as the religious leader of the tiny Balkan nation.

Several hundred Montenegrins gathered in the historic city of Cetinje on Sunday to block the inauguration of Metropolitan Joanikije as the Metropolitan of Montenegro and Archbishop of Cetinje.

His predecessor, Metropolitan Amfilohije, died last year of COVID-19.

Protesters threw rocks, bottles and firecrackers at police while church figures were flown in by helicopter under tight security measures for the inauguration ceremony in Cetinje.

Opponents of the event had set up barricades to block the roads leading to the city.

"This is not Serbia!" and "Long live Montenegro!" were two of the main slogans chanted by the demonstrators gathered on the roads linking the capital city Podgorica to Cetinje.

"I am here to show my love for the country," said one protester, Saska Brajovic. "We are not asking for anything from anyone else, but we are dismissed by the occupying Serbian Church. We are here defending our dignity."

The protesters are backed by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of President Milo Djukanovic.

Djukanovic has been pursuing creating a separated independent Orthodox church in Montenegro.

The protests reflect tensions between Montenegrins and Serbs in the Balkan country.

Montenegrins voted for independence and separation from neighboring Serbia in 2006. Since then, pro-independence Montenegrins have advocated for an Orthodox Christian church that is separate from the Serbian one.

However, Montenegro's church did not become autonomous and remained under the Serbian Orthodox Church, which many saw as a symbol of Serbian influence.

Montenegro's Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic condemned the Cetinje clashes, describing the attack on police as "an act of terrorism."

He blamed DPS, which ruled the country for three decades before losing elections last year, for organizing the protests.

The European Union's special envoy for Montenegro, Tonino Picula, voiced concern over the escalation of ethnic tensions in the country. "The freedom to expression, but also to protest is inviolable," Picula told state TV.

While Serbs make up about one-third of Montenegro's approximately 630,000 population, the Serbian Orthodox Church remains the dominant religious establishment in the country.

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