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Montenegro - Religion

The population is 620,000 according to a 2011 National Statistics Office (NSO) estimate. Approximately 72 percent of the population identified itself as Orthodox (either Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) or Montenegrin Orthodox Church (CPC)), 16 percent as “Islamic,” 3 percent as Muslim, and 3.4 percent as Roman Catholic. The SPC is larger than the CPC. Without official explanation, the NSO created separate categories for Muslims and followers of Islam, but later combined the categories after the Islamic community objected. Other religious groups include Seventh-day Adventists, Buddhists, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Jews.

The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom. In practice, the government generally respected religious freedom; however, the government imposed restrictions that affected members of minority religious groups. The trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not changed significantly in recent years.

The relationship between the SPC and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (CPC) remain tense, as disagreements continued between their followers and clergy over property and status. Relations among the major religious groups (Orthodox, Islamic, and Catholic) were generally amicable. However, longstanding tensions, often with political overtones, persisted between the clergy, congregations, and supporters of the SPC and the CPC. Disputes between the SPC and the CPC continued over possession of some 750 Orthodox shrines. Both churches claimed to be the “true” Orthodox Church in the country. Depending on their editorial stances, media outlets sometimes produced highly negative content about the SPC and the CPC. The CPC and the SPC celebrated Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Easter at separate locations and under police protection around the churches.

There is no state religion, and the constitution holds that religious groups are separate from the state and free in their exercise of religious affairs. The law provides the basic framework for recognition of religious groups and their relationship with the state. Religious groups must register with the local police within 15 days of establishment to receive the status of a legal entity. The Commission for Political Systems and Internal and Foreign Policy, chaired by the deputy prime minister, was responsible for regulating relations between the state and religious groups until June, when the government established the Department for Religious Communities within the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. As of 04 December 2012, the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights is responsible for regulating relations between the state and religious groups.

The criminal code prescribes a fine or up to two years in prison for preventing or restricting an individual’s freedom of belief or membership in a religious group, or for preventing or obstructing the performance of one’s religious rites. A fine or maximum one year in prison is the penalty for coercing another to declare his or her religious beliefs. Any government official convicted under this legislation may receive a sentence of up to three years.

The law prohibits discrimination, including discrimination on religious grounds. It is also a crime to cause and spread religious hatred, which includes the mockery of religious symbols or the desecration of monuments, memorial tablets, or tombs. This is punishable by a prison sentence ranging from six months to 10 years if it is the result of an abuse of position or authority, if it leads to violence, or if the consequences are deemed detrimental to the coexistence of people, national minorities, or ethnic groups.

There were no reports of abuses of religious freedom; however, the government imposed restrictions that affected members of minority religious groups. A lack of harmonization between the 1977 law on religious groups and the 2007 constitution contributed to problems regarding the legal status and rights of religious groups. There was no progress in the restitution of religious properties expropriated by the former communist Yugoslav government. The government continued to implement the law in a manner that limited the ability of foreign SPC clergy to obtain permanent or long-term residency. The Ministry of Interior denied permits for temporary residency to most SPC clergy residing in Montenegro based on the fact that the SPC refuses to register with the Ministry of Interior as an official religious group; however, the SPC stated such decisions were politically motivated.

Major religious groups stated that the law regulating their legal status was outdated and inadequate, because it failed to address many issues relating to relations between the state and religious groups. Some NGOs demanded the termination of the government’s agreements with the Islamic and Jewish groups and the Holy See in advance of the adoption of a new comprehensive law designed to harmonize existing laws with the constitution.

The government and the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) continue to dispute the SPC’s legal status. Formed in 1993, the Montenegrin Church claims to be a successor of the autocephalous Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which functioned as such until 1920. Serbia’s Patriarch Irinej, in the same letter sent to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in August 2018, discredits the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, calling it a sect which is registered in a police station as an NGO.

The leverage of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro’s political life is far more tangible than in Macedonia because around 70 percent of Montenegrin Orthodox believers adhere to the Serbian Orthodox Church while the rest belong to the Montenegrin Orthodox Church.

Moreover, it was only in 2006 when, by referendum, Montenegrins decided to separate from Serbia to restore their independence as a separate country. For the ethnic Serbs who make up about a third of Montenegro’s total population, this remains a divisive issue.

Unlike its Macedonian counterpart, the Montenegrin Church is still facing a number of challenges which prohibit its normal functioning, such as the lack of church infrastructure. This is one of the most significant points of contest with the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The Montenegrin Church claims that church property in Montenegro built before 1918, the year when Montenegro united with Serbia, should be returned to the Montenegrin state, something that the Serbian Orthodox Church vigorously opposes. The Montenegrin state is directly involved in the legal dispute, of which it is supposed to be the arbitrator.

Major religious groups criticized the government’s failure to pass new laws on the legal status of religious groups and to amend legislation to provide restitution for seized religious properties. There were reports of societal discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. A new Montenegrin law on religion passed unanimously 45-0 after midnight on 27 December 2019. shortly afterward with opposition deputies either boycotting or not present for the vote because they were detained.

President Milos Djukanovic, who had been a big promoter of the legislation, signed the bill on December 28 to make it law soon after its publication in the legal gazette. In the lead-up to the vote, supporters of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro protested around the country and in front of parliament in the capital, Podgorica, on 26 December 2019.

The government in Podgorica withdrew a previous draft law on religion in 2016 amid international criticism, including from the Serbian Orthodox Church, minority Catholic and Muslim communities, and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, which offers legal advice to protect minorities and the rule of law among its members.

Much of the new law was hailed as a positive step toward bringing Montenegro's postindependence legislation on religion and faith up to date to replace Yugoslav-era laws. It included language that covers nonreligious beliefs like atheism, takes a liberal approach toward the registration of religious communities, and respects the freedom of those groups to decide on their names and symbols.

But the bill imposes evidentiary demands on the origins of church property that particularly alarmed the Serbian Orthodox Church and its local arm, who fear the law will dispossess them of churches and other sacred sites and effectively render them unable to tend to their adherents. The law will force the Serbian Orthodox Church -- and others -- to prove its rightful ownership of property dating back to before the events of 1918-20 in court or forfeit ownership to the Montenegrin state. The Serbian church would have great difficulty keeping all of its property under such conditions as it took over many of its churches and other buildings, for instance, from the old version of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church one century ago.

Djukanovic and other officials in Podgorica have encouraged the establishment of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church and its efforts to portray itself as the legitimate successor to medieval and earlier Orthodoxy in the region. But founded by a defrocked Serbian Orthodox priest, woefully undersized, and canonically unrecognized by most of Orthodox Christianity, it has thus far attracted only around 30 percent of Orthodox Montenegrins.

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Page last modified: 01-01-2020 18:35:38 ZULU