Protests erupt against new Montenegro govt over religion law

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People shout slogans during a protest against the new government in Podgorica, Montenegro, Monday, Dec. 28, 2020. Several thousand people rallied Monday in Montenegro, accusing the new government of being pro-Serb because of its plans to amend a religious property law that is strongly opposed by the Serbian Orthodox Church. (AP Photo/Risto Bozovic)

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Several thousand people rallied Monday in Montenegro, accusing the new government of being pro-Serb because of its plans to amend a religious property law that is strongly opposed by the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Carrying Montenegrin flags and chanting “Treason!” the protesters gathered outside the parliament building in Podgorica, the capital, where lawmakers are to discuss the proposed changes.

The demonstration is the first major protest in the small Balkan country against the new government that came to power after winning a slim majority over a long-ruling pro-Western party at a parliamentary election in August.

That vote was marked by the dispute over the religious law that the Serbian Orthodox Church said was designed to strip the church of its property. The government has denied this but the church still led months of protests that helped strengthen the opposition ahead of the election.

Years after gaining independence from a union with Serbia following a 2006 referendum, residents in Montenegro remain divided over its relations with Belgrade. Some 30% of Montenegrins declare themselves as Serbs and the Serbian Orthodox Church enjoys the biggest following.

The previous government led by the Democratic Party of Socialists steered Montenegro away from Serbia’s and Russia’s influence. The Adriatic nation joined NATO in 2017 and is seeking European Union membership.

Demonstrators at Monday’s gathering blasted the new government’s plan to revoke parts of the religious law dealing with property. They accused the government of setting the stage for the “occupation” of Montenegro.

It was not immediately clear when the parliamentary vote on the religious law changes will take place.

Despite calls to respect measures to curb the spread of coronavirus, the protesters crowded together, many without masks. Montenegro has reported 666 virus deaths in a nation of 620,000 people.

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