The conflict in Montenegrin Orthodoxy

For most of the 20th century the Orthodox population of Montenegro belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, in 1993 a group of citizens and intellectuals close to the Liberal Alliance and the Socialdemocratic Party established a "Montenegrin Orthodox Church" (MOC), later registered as an NGO.

Supporters of the MOC insist that this is not a creation but the resurrection of an institution that was abolished by the decree of Yugoslav King Alexander in 1920. Before then the Cetinje Diocese was autocephalous: it enjoyed canonical and administrative independence and elected its own primates and bishops. Supporters of the MOC point to other models in the Orthodox world: the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, for instance, is independent from the Greek Orthodox Church.

The first archbishop of the MOC was appointed in 1993. After his death a former minister of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) born in Bosnia, Mihailo Dedeic, became its leader in 1997. The current Archbishop of the SOC in Montenegro, Amfilohije Radovic, considers the MOC heretical and schismatic.

Amfilohije and Mihailo are neighbours in the old capital of Cetinje. Amfilohije resides in the Cetinje Monastery, the former seat of Montenegrin rulers. Mihailo resides in the modest Bishop's Convent built a decade ago alongside a small church. In mid April 2007, Mihailo was prevented by police from entering the Cetinje Monastery with a few hundreds of his believers.

Amfilohije is responsible for 220 monks and priests and 700 orthodox places of worship, including the famous Montenegrin monasteries. Mihailo has only 24 priests in his flock, celebrating mass in a recently erected church in Kotor and in about 50 village churches "returned" to the MOC by citizens of the Katunska nahija region around Cetinje. These churches remain in principle open also for the priests of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC). However, there have been threats as well as fistfights between supporters.

Miodrag Vukovic

 The conflict between the rivalling churches has also become a prominent political issue, particularly regarding their position in the new constitution. Miodrag Vukovic, head of the parliamentary group of the ruling DPS, told ESI:

"I believe we should try to achieve a compromise, for instance, by opening the orthodox temples for both churches… the Serbian church is a foreign church in Montenegro, and it will in the future have to bear the legal and political consequences of this fact."

Unofficial sources in the DPS suggest that the government is in fact trying to convince Amfilohije to separate his Diocese from the Serbian Church, promising him the position of supreme head of the Orthodox Church in Montenegro. The vice president of DPS, Svetozar Marovic, openly called upon Amfilohije during the summer of 2007 to declare whether the church is loyal to the state of Montenegro.

Amfilohije, long a strong critic of Montenegrin independence, had already fallen silent on the eve of the referendum: he did not call for supporting the state union with Serbia and did not speak out against Montenegrin independence after the referendum. He recently cooperated with the state in the construction of a church in Cetinje to host three Christian relics: a splinter of the Holy Cross, a hand of John the Baptist and an icon of the Madonna. Immediately after the referendum he argued that the independence of the Montenegrin state would significantly weaken the position of the self-declared Montenegrin Orthodox Church.

His close ally, the rector of the Cetinje seminary Gojko Perovic told Vijesti in early July that "whether the church in an independent state is autonomous or not is a separate question, which cannot be decided by political factors":

"Naturally, we are not disinterested in the issue of the state independence, we are just saying that a merely political decision cannot be decisive. We must take into consideration the religious and internal church criteria, and if they happen to coincide with the political orientation, there could be a compromise."

Asked whether he believes that in the future the Montenegrin and Coastal Diocese (MCD) of the Serbian Orthodox Church might become autonomous from the Serbian Orthodox Church he pointed out that in its history the Diocese has experienced periods of independence.

Emil Krijestorac of the People's Party does not believe that Amfilohije would ask for independence from the Serbian church.

"I think it would rather be some kind of weak autonomy, which is now de facto granted due to the influence which the Archbishop Amfilohije has in the orthodox world."

Dobrilo Dedeic, MP within the Serbian List, believes that, even if the state authorities offered the MCD autonomy from the Serbian Church, the MCD would not be interested:

"It would mean a schism and breakdown of the organic structure of the Serbian Orthodox Church. I would never be a member of a community born from the breakdown of the SOC, whoever the members and whoever might be leading it. That would only be a shortcut to the fulfilment of the wishes of those who want to change the identity and beliefs of the Serbs fro Montenegro. For me, it would be a huge personal and fatal collective defeat."

Reaction by Tihomir Popovic, Vice-President of the Diocesan Council and Executive Board of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Central Europe (26 September 2007)

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We thank the Montenegrin daily Vijesti for access to their photo archive.