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Thoughts from Yorkshire on Faith and Politics in Montenegro

by John Grogan

Except for Captain Tom Moore, who recently captured the nation’s hearts for his fundraising efforts at the height of the pandemic, the most famous living son of the Yorkshire town of Keighley (the area I represented in Parliament from 2017 -2019) is probably Alistair Campbell.

 

Whilst working for Tony Blair as Director of Communications in 2003 he famously interrupted a journalist who was attempting to ask the Prime Minister about his Christian beliefs declaring that ‘We don’t do God!’. Over a decade later in 2019 the Foreign Office took a rather different attitude and commissioned a report from the Bishop of Truro which outlined how the UK could adopt a more robust approach to providing support for persecuted Christians in every continent. 


As a Catholic myself I welcome the British Government speaking up for the religious freedom of people of all faiths in a troubled world. I was surprised however in a recent article in Time Magazine to see two of my former Parliamentary colleagues Liberal Democrat Tim Farron and Conservative Steve Baker refer to the Bishop’s report, and highlight Montenegro as an example of a state where Christianity was under threat. The headline proclaimed that NATO and Britain must stand with Montenegro’s Christians.


Both MPs gave as evidence the “Law on Religious Freedom” which recently passed through the national parliament. They argued that: ‘a state-issued license is now mandatory to practice religion; faith communities’ assets require state registration, with government appointees made the decision-makers over all religious property disputes, and no recourse provided via the courts’. The Serbian Orthodox Church and their Primate in Montenegro Metropolitan Archbishop Radović are portrayed as the victims of a great persecution.


So what is the case for the defence for the Parliament of a country which has a population of just over 600,000 and attracts 2 million tourists a year? The answer begins with history. Montenegro which translates as ‘Black Mountain’ was the only Balkan nation not to be fully subjugated by the Ottoman Empire and was ruled over the centuries by a succession of bishops and kings.


It is worth underlining that the Orthodox Church as a single communion comprises nationally distinct autocephalous (self-governing) bodies united by a common theology. Church and state, except in the Communist era, have traditionally been close in orthodox countries as currently is the case in Russia and Greece. In Montenegro the Orthodox Church has long dominated. But the question is which branch – Montenegrin or Serbian? Up until the First World War there is no doubt that the church had a distinctive Montenegrin identity.


As the British traveller and writer Edith Durham explained in 1905 “Montenegro alone kept a free and independent Slav Church, which survives to this day”. Moreover, the 1911 edition of 'Encyclopædia Britannica' concluded that ‘The Montenegrin Church is an autocephalous branch of the Eastern Orthodox communion. In 1894 it formally vindicated its independence against the claims of the Russian synod’.


Yet in 1918 the Montenegrin nation was annexed into the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. At that time all the property of the Montenegrin Orthodox Churches was illegally transferred to the Serbian Orthodox Church. 


Fast forward through another war and Montenegro became one of the republics which were part of Yugoslavia under President Tito. After the break-up of the federation in the 1990’s Montenegro was initially linked with Serbia. But it gradually adopted a more independent policy particularly concerning President Milosević’s conduct of wars in Bosnia, Croatia and then Kosovo. In 2006 a referendum confirmed Montenegro‘s independence. About half of the population identity primarily as Montenegrin and a quarter Serbian with additional significant numbers of Albanians and Bosniaks.


The 'Law on Religious Freedom' has followed five  years of planning and consultation and is backed by a variety of parties in the Parliament. It has gained broad support from the Venice Commission (an advisory body of the Council of Europe) composed of independent experts in constitutional law. The Commission was created in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time of urgent need for constitutional assistance in Central and Eastern Europe.


The Venice Commission observed that ‘providing a new legal framework for the exercise of the right to freedom of religion or belief which takes due account of the current and historical conditions of the country is today a necessity’; and it commended ‘the genuine efforts of the Montenegrin authorities to do so‘. 


There are two main elements of the law which have proved controversial amongst some in Montenegro. Firstly, there is the issue of ownership. All property which was built after 1918 will continue to belong to the religious organisations concerned. As will all property erected before that date where there is proof of ownership. What is at issue are buildings which were seized by the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1918 from their Montenegrin forebears. The Government has offered now, to amend the law so that the courts are the final arbiter and the burden of proof is placed on those who want to challenge ownership. Secondly, there is the issue of registration with the state. The Serbian Orthodox Church alone of the major religions in Montenegro refuses to agree to this. It is perhaps worth noting that the same church has no problem registering its premises in London under the terms of the Charities Act. 


It is true that some orthodox priests have been arrested following demonstrations - but that was for breaking Coronavirus regulations rather than religious belief. Archbishop Radović himself has been questioned but not arrested. Maybe he is not the best poster boy for the cause of religious freedom and toleration. Over the years he has expressed support for Serbian nationalists such as Radovan Karadzić and Ratko Mladić. Some leading figures in the Serbian Orthodox Church have never come to terms with Montenegro being an independent nation.


Calls for NATO members to intervene on Radovic’s behalf have a certain irony - given that during the referendum campaign in Montenegro about joining NATO he mused in a sermon: “What is NATO? It is nothing but the continuation of the national fascist ideology which has flooded Europe and the whole world with blood”. He advised his flock to side with Russia. 


Baker and Farron are right to highlight the debate about combatting corruption in Montenegro. Indeed, ambitions of European Union membership are dependent upon very substantial progress being made in the years ahead. It is a live issue in the current general election campaign with voting due to take place on August 30th. On the other hand it is not surprising that the Parliament of Montenegro (like Ukraine) wants to encourage the development of an Orthodox Church, with an identity which reflects the nation and not that of a neighbouring state.


Given the history of the last 30 years in the Balkans it is no mean achievement for Montenegro, with its diverse population, to have managed a peaceful transition to independence and democracy. As it deals with the legacies of its past and looks to a future in the heart of Europe long may that tradition of steady progress continue.


John Grogan is the former Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Montenegro in the UK Parliament (2017-2019). This article first appeared in the EU Political Report Website. Reproduced with the author's permission


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