Religion

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Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application

Article 46 of the constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief. The right to express religious beliefs is limited only by the need to protect the life and health of others, public peace and order. Article 14 stipulates that religious communities shall be equal and free in the exercise of religious rites and religious affairs and that they are separate from the state.

Religious groups must register with the local police within 15 days of their establishment in order to receive the status of a legal entity. The police must then file this registration with the Ministry of the Interior. Religious organisations must have at least two members to register.

Religious communities registered in Montenegro include the Church of Christ’s Gospel, Catholic Mission Tuzi, Christian Adventist Church, Evangelistic Church, Army Order of Hospitable Believers of Saint Lazar of Jerusalem for Montenegro, Franciscan Mission for Malesija, Biblical Christian Community, Bahais, Montenegrin Community, Christian Adventist Church, Buddhists, Protestants, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Jewish community.[1]

The Government enters into individual accords with religious organisations. Separate agreements have been concluded so far between the Government of Montenegro and the Catholic, Islamic and Jewish communities.[2] These agreements do not replace the requirement of registration. There is no similar agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church or the Montenegrin Orthodox Church.

Many of the country’s official public holidays are based on the Orthodox liturgical calendar. Additional Catholic, Muslim and Jewish holidays are also observed.

The Legal Status of Religious Communities Act 1977[3] is still in force in Montenegro. This law dates back to the time when Montenegro was one of the constitutive republics of the then Yugoslavia. A new Freedom of Religion Law was drafted to regulate the status of churches and other religious communities in secular Montenegrin society. However, the draft has not been finalised. Under the draft, it was proposed that all the churches and monasteries built before 1918 would become state property and part of the country’s cultural heritage. Religious communities would also have had to start to paying taxes, and have been obliged to “confidentially inform the government” prior to appointing officials. After the religious communities submitted 4,501 remarks the Ministry had to withdraw the draft for further consideration.

Although announced for the end of 2017, a new draft law has not yet been presented to the public. According to the Director-General for Relations with religious Communities at the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights, Ms Žana Filipović, a new preliminary draft is currently being considered. However, she was not in a position to say when it would be presented to Parliament.[4]

On 3rd September 2017, after 70 years of waiting, the Diocese of Bar, the oldest religious institution in Montenegro, blessed and dedicated the new co-cathedral of Saint Peter the Apostle. A special Mass was celebrated by the retired Archbishop Zef Gashi. The cornerstone for the new co-cathedral in Bar was laid in 2011 by retired Washington Cardinal Theodor McCarick.

In December 2017, Montenegro’s state politicians joined members of the Jewish community to lay the cornerstone for a new synagogue in Podgorica. The Government of Montenegro gave the land for a synagogue in 2013. According to local newspapers that will be the first synagogue constructed in the Balkans this century.[5]

For the first time in over a century, the Jewish community of Montenegro has its own resident rabbi, Ari Edelkopf, a Los Angeles-born Chabad rabbi. Mr Edelkopf is also Montenegro’s first resident rabbi since Montenegro became independent in 2006. The Jewish community in Montenegro is the youngest and probably one of the smallest Jewish communites in the world today. According to the most recent census, about 300 Jews live in Montenegro.

A group of 30 Muslim inhabitants from Rozaje, a town situated on the Montenegro-Kosovo border, recently proved that the religious tolerance is very alive among common people in Montenegro. While working abroad, they heard that the local Orthodox church of Saint John the Baptist desperately needed reconstruction. They collected the money and helped the Orthodox parishioners to replace warped and damaged wooden doors and windows. Rozaje is a Muslim majority town and only two percent of the residents are Orthodox believers.[6]

Incidents

On 1st October 2017, in order to avoid physical conflict between supporters of the Montenegro Orthodox Church and supporters of the Serbian Orthodox Church, local Cetinje police prevented the Montenegro Orthodox Archbishop and clergy from celebrating a Mass for King Nikola and his family in Ćipuri Monastery in Cetinje.[7]

The mayor of the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, Slavoljub Stijepovic, filed a criminal complaint against unknown perpetrators “dressed like priests”, for holding a Mass on disputed property. The mayor’s criminal complaint said that unknown perpetrators broke in to the former marketplace in the Konik neighborhood, and trespassed on municipality land. The criminal complaint was submitted after Serbian Orthodox priests, led by Amfilohije Radovic, held a Mass on 23rd April 2017 in a disused marketplace, to mark the start of construction of a new church consecrated to Saint Vasilije Ostroski.[8]

The restoration of a historical monument in Podgorica caused a public disagreement between Muslims and the Orthodox. During the reconstruction process, a 100-year-old metal cross was removed from the top of a clock tower (Sahat Kula) built in 1667 by Ottoman ruler Adži-paša Osmanagić. The Islamic Community insists that the metal cross should not be brought back because it is not part of the original Islamic architecture. The Serbian Orthodox Church is demanding that the cross be returned to the tower as soon as possible. The restoration project has been financed with one million euros from Turkey’s TIKA agency.

The Serbian Orthodox Church strongly opposed the Government plans to build several hydro-electric power plants on the Moraca River in the northern part of the country. The church officials said the government plan would endanger the existence of a 13th century monastery which is one of the most important pilgrimage shrines in Montenegro.[9]

Prospects for freedom of religion

One year after Montenegro was officially admitted into NATO there are not a lot of positive changes that can be seen in the everyday life of Montenegrin citizens. The reforms have generally slowed down. The unemployment rate increased to 24 percent in 2017. The general public considers the government as highly inefficient and corrupt.

The draft law on religious freedom has not yet been adopted, despite promises.

The Serbian Orthodox Church and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church continue their dispute over the ownership of religious properties in Montenegro. The Serbian Orthodox Church’s clergy continues to use offensive rhetoric, which sometimes verges on hate-speech, and seeks to interfere in the affairs of the state and politics. Setting aside the conflict between the two Orthodox Churches, relations between religious groups are amicable and tolerant. It remains to be seen whether the rather unstable political and economic situation will significantly influence the traditionally religiously tolerant Montenegrin society.

Endnotes / Sources

[1] The Directorate for Religious Communities within the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights

[2] PR Bureau of the Government of Montenegro

[3] Official Gazette of Montenegro, No. 9/77

[4] The Religious Law still ont on the agenda at Parliament, Dan, 28th March 2018,     http://www.dan.co.me/?nivo=3&rubrika=Drustvo&clanak=640420&najdatum=2018-03-28&datum=2018-03-29

[5] The Cornerstone for a new synagogue in Podgorica, Montenegro State TV Channel, National Public Service, http://www.rtcg.me/vijesti/podgorica/187953/postavljen-kamen-temeljac-za-sinagogu.html

[6] CDM. The Muslim donors helped the reconstruction of orthodox church in Rozaje, 13th February 2018, https://www.cdm.me/drustvo/muslimani-glavni-donatori-za-obnovu-crkve-u-rozajama/

[7] Lela Šćepanović, Orthodox Church Conflict prevented mass celebration, Radio Free Europe, https://www.slobodnaevropa.org/a/sukob-spc-i-cpc/28773638.html

[8] Milica Đurović, Stijepovic filed a criminal complaint, Amfilohije and his priests burgled local market at Konik in Podgorica, http://www.vijesti.me/vijesti/stijepovic-podnio-prijavu-amfilohije-i-svestenici-obili-pijacu-na-koniku-934994

[9] Dusica Tomovic Serbian Church in Montenegro Slams Planned Dams, 27th December 2016, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/serbian-church-slams-montenegro-s-plan-to-dam-moraca-river-12-26-2016-1

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