Authorities in Montenegro signed a controversial new agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church on Wednesday in what many fear may unleash a fresh political crisis in the Balkan nation.
The agreement covers a range of issues including measures to provide a regulatory framework for the hundreds of properties, including churches and monasteries, owned by the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC).
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“Fundamental Agreement between Montenegro and the Serbian Orthodox Church signed,” Montenegro’s Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic wrote on Twitter.
“We are moving on, with focus on better living standard of citizens,” he added.
Montenegro has signed similar agreements with other religious bodies in the past, including the Catholic church and with representatives of its Jewish and Muslim communities.
Abazovic said the latest agreement would hopefully smooth over relations between divisive groups within the country, particularly pro-Serbia and pro-Western parties.
The country’s President Milo Djukanovic has long been a fierce opponent of the SPC and been accused of wanting to nationalize the church’s properties.
“The agreement signed today is contrary to the constitution of Montenegro and will be suspended immediately after the election of a new government,” the president’s party announced Wednesday.
Speculation is rife over whether Djukanovic -- who is currently in the opposition -- will use the latest accord as a way to destabilize the ruling government and push for early elections.
Religious issues have been a perennial flashpoint in Montenegro, with past governments toppled over disputes involving the church.
The tiny Adriatic country has long been plagued by fights over identity, including last year when protesters calling themselves “Montenegrin patriots” tried to prevent the inauguration of a new SPC leader in Montenegro.
The nation broke away from Serbia in 2006, but a third of its 620,000 inhabitants identify as Serbs and some deny Montenegro should be a separate entity.
Djukanovic, the architect of independence, has been eager to curb the SPC’s clout in Montenegro and cement a separate national identity.
The SPC is the dominant religion in the small state but opponents accuse it of serving neighbouring Serbia's interests.