Podgorica, Montenegro | AFP | More than a dozen Montenegrin opposition MPs were detained in parliament on Friday after they violently protested a controversial law on religious freedom, which was passed after the group was taken away.
The law has raised tensions in recent weeks between the government and a pro-Serb opposition which is close to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), Montenegro’s main religious body.
Under the legislation, religious communities need to prove ownership of property from before 1918, when Montenegro lost its independence, in order to keep it.
The SPC, which runs hundreds of monasteries in the tiny country, accuses the government of trying to appropriate church heritage and purloin its assets.
The government denies this, saying it only wants to sort out ownership rights.
During the parliamentary debate that started on Thursday, opposition MPs from the Democratic Front called on supporters to block roads around Montenegro and threatened to take up arms if the law was passed.
After amendments they proposed were rejected, opposition members hurled a firecracker in the parliament hall, vandalised the building, threw plastic bottles and tried to physically attack other politicians, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.
Eighteen opposition deputies were detained inside the assembly. According to state media reports, they were questioned by police early Friday.
After the protesting MPs were marched away, the law was passed in the early hours with 45 votes in favour.
Prime Minister Dusko Markovic told the public “not to expect a radicalisation of the situation” in the country.
“I condemn this behaviour as irresponsible towards other members of parliament and towards the citizens of Montenegro, but I believe that this is a valuable experience and that this kind of incident will not be repeated,” he said.
There were also protests in Podgorica and attempts to block roads in other parts of the country by the opposition’s supporters, according to local media.
Montenegro was part of the same country as Serbia for nearly 90 years until its independence in 2006, and relations between the neighbours remain complicated.
The SPC is still the official Orthodox church in the country, where nearly 72 percent of Montenegro’s population of 620,000 adhere to the faith.
But Montenegro’s President Milo Djukanovic, has called for the “renewal” of the independent Montenegrin Church.
The Montenegrin Orthodox Church declared its separation from the SPC in the mid-1990s, but it is still not recognised by most Orthodox churches.