By Stefan J. Bos
Montenegro's Prime Minister Dusko Markovic and Bishop Amfilohije, who leads the Serbian Orthodox Church in the Balkan nation, met in a state villa in the capital Podgorica at a difficult time.
The Serbian Church in Montenegro fears a government-backed religious law will allow the state to take over its properties, including monasteries, churches, and other assets. The government has denied it plans to do so.
Thousands of people have attended church-led protests. They have been held throughout Montenegro since the legislation was adopted late last year.
Protestor Juvan Bulatovic called the legislation ill-favored. He said the law "seeks a state take-over of 1,000-years of history and 800-year-old churches as well as religion."
He claimed the state wanted to seize and privatize everything in Montenegro. But he pledged that the people "will not accept this and will protect their faith, church, and religion."
The protests underscored a broader debate about religion in the small country.
The standoff even led to physical fighting in Parliament. Other Orthodox Christian churches recognize the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro. But the self-proclaimed Montenegrin Orthodox Church hasn't been accepted by several denominations.
About 30 percent of Montenegro's 620,000 people declare themselves as Serbs. Montenegro split from much larger Serbia in 2006. In Serbia, angry crowds also rallied against Montenegro's religious legislation.
Montenegro joined the western NATO military in 2017 despite objections from Russia, which is wielding influence in the region. Montenegro also seeks entry into the prosperous European Union.