Irreconcilable Enmity: Montenegrin and Serbian Orthodox Churches

Irreconcilable Enmity: Montenegrin and Serbian Orthodox Churches

In Montenegro, one of Europe’s smallest countries with a population of nearly 625,000, there are two Orthodox churches – the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (hereafter MOC) and the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral of the Serbian Orthodox Church (hereafter SOC). Some 74-75% of the country’s population are their parishioners, most of whom are part of the Serbian Orthodox Church. 

The difference between the two churches is not so much theological but political. That is, the attitude towards the nation of Montenegro and everything Montenegrin in general. If the MOC stands by the country’s independence and promotes the national identity of Montenegrins, the SOC stands against such independence, defying the very existence of the Montegerin nation. To this end, with the support and assistance from the Russian Orthodox Church, they invest a lot of energy and money in promoting the ideas of the “Serbian world”, whose main idea is to unite all Serbs in the countries across the region and expand the Serbian borders. The concept was shaped up by Ilija Garasanin, a Serbian politician, back in the 19th century. This concept is now being lobbied to one degree or another by the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Academy of Sciences and Arts of Serbia, and right-wing nationalist Serbian politicians.

The MOC has been independent since the 16th century when the country was a theocratic state – the Principality-Bishopric of Montenegro, headed by prince-bishops. On July 13, 1878, at the Berlin Congress, the Kingdom of Montenegro was recognized as the world’s 26th sovereign state, with all the relevant attributes of power in place, including a flag, a parliament (Skupstyna), an army, as well as its own national church. But the emergence of an independent Montenegro bothered Belgrade so in November 1918, the Montenegrin Assembly, due to the efforts of pro-Serbian deputies and the SOC, proclaimed Montenegro’s unification with Serbia. After some time, the MOC, like several other Orthodox churches, were “squeezed” into the SOC, which revitalized it into the shape we are see today. Despite such a motley composition, the church remained one of the main mechanisms of promoting the Great Serbia ideas in the region, refusing to recognize the Montenegrin nation and its church. 

MOC was restored only in 1993, but even now it is considered non-canonical and self-proclaimed. Mostly it’s the two influential Orthodox churches – the Russian Orthodox Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church – that hamper all attempts to change the situation. However, the MOC maintains relations with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Croatian, Macedonian, and several other Orthodox churches. Throughout its history, the MOC has supported the idea of Montenegro’s independence from Serbia, which was finally achieved in 2006. This immediately led to a new stage of religious confrontation as the issue of creating a legitimate and patriotic Montenegrin church and limiting the SOC influence in the re-established state was on the agenda.

The first leaders of independent Montenegro – M. Djukanovic and R. Krivokapic, understood the need to set up a national church in such a fairly religious country as Montenegro, which could protect the restored statehood and its people from the Great Serbia influence of the SOC. But they could not immediately start moving in this direction, since more than 90% of Orthodox believers were parishioners of the SOC and refused to accept the Government’s intentions to legalize the MOC. There were also fears of an aggravation of the domestic political situation, up to mass protests that Montenegrin Serbs could set up. The authorities at the time began to take gradual steps aimed at limiting the influence of the SOC on domestic politics and curbing its anti-Montenegrin campaigns. The government held meetings with the representatives of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, provided financial support to the church, and started to dismantle illegally built objects, including religious ones belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, over time, the Montenegrin leaders, who supported the restoration of the Montenegrin Church and provided assistance to this end, gradually lost their leading positions and failed to complete the process. Since 2020, the Government of Montenegro has been headed by pro-Belgrade politicians who support the Serbian Orthodox Church. 

There is a possibility that under the pressure of pro-Serbian forces led by the Serbian Orthodox Church, supported by Moscow and Belgrade, the country may face a slowdown in EU integration and reform, and even an attempt to pull it out of NATO. 

Moreover, in 2023, a prominent backer of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Jakov Milatovic, became the country’s president, while another supporter of the SOC, Milojko Spajic, is the potential prime minister. It must be noted that the SOC actually did a lot to help the two politicians win public support. Now, apparently, time has come for the two officials to pay their dues. The Law on Freedom of Religion, drafted in 2019 by pro-Montenegrin forces and approved by the State Assembly, was amended in the SOC favor. The main goal of the Law initially was to weaken the influence of the SOC on political processes, to separate it from government,  to regulate property rights, and to put the church into the existing legal field. This law immediately became the target of attacks from the Serbian and Russian Orthodoxy, as well as all pro-Serbian forces, who started to put pressure on the government through street protests. So now the law has been amended to exclude precisely the articles that caused discontent of the anti-Montenegrin forces. Also, quite unexpectedly, in 2022, Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic signed the so-called Basic Agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church, ensuring that the SOC retains ownership of most religious buildings, and in addition, de facto granting the church “extraterritoriality” status. That is, the SOC secured everything it had sought to achieve from the previous government and that was extremely negatively perceived by ethnic Montenegrins. The two documents actually pose a certain threat to the very existence of Montenegrin and statehood.

Today, the SOC remains an extremely powerful political force, a lobbyist for Greater Serbia and the “Serbian world”. Its influence and policies are not entirely in line with Montenegro’s European development course and aimed at changing the state’s independence policy. The pro-Montenegrin forces and the MOC have so far failed to wrest the local Orthodoxy from Serbian domination, and the process of reviving the national Orthodox Church has actually been suspended. It is difficult to say how long this will last. Much will depend on the new composition of the new Government and the agenda of the National Assembly.