Montenegro signs long-disputed contract with Serbian Orthodox church

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PODGORICA, Aug 3 (Reuters) – Montenegro’s government signed a contract regulating its ties with the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church on Wednesday, saying it would help heal deep divisions between pro-European Union parties and backers of closer relations with Serbia and Russia.

The move was immediately rejected by human rights activists and several political parties who said it gave the church too much power compared to other religious communities.

Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic and the Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Porfirije signed the contract without the presence of media and with no prior announcement, in a government villa whose entrance was cordoned off by police.

A few dozen protesters demonstrated against the deal nearby.

The deal regulates relations between the Serbian Orthodox Church, the largest church in Montenegro, including its real estate ownership rights, and the state of Montenegro.

Abazovic has said the deal with the Church was key for reconciliation between conservatives who favour closer ties with Serbia and Russia and civic-oriented pro-EU parties.

“I am sorry that this (deal) has not been realised earlier but this government is determined to grant identical rights to all religious communities,” he said after the signing ceremony.

“I believe that in this way the message of peace and tolerance has been sent and that we are turning a new leaf.”

But Abazovic’s coalition partners, notably the pro-Western DPS of President Milo Djukanovic, have said they would introduce a parliamentary no-confidence motion in his government over the deal with the church.

Montenegro’s politics have been long marked by divisions between those who identify as Montenegrins and pro-Russia Serbs who opposed the Adriatic country’s independence from a former state union with Serbia and prefer stronger ties with Serbia and Russia.

Montenegro left its union with Serbia in 2006 but its church did not get autonomy and remained under the Serbian Orthodox Church, making it a symbol to some of Serbian influence.

Abazovic’s minority government comprising both pro-European and pro-Serb parties was formed in April, following a no-confidence motion in the previous government in February.

He said at the time that the government’s key goal would be unblocking reforms needed for Montenegro, a NATO member which began accession negotiations with the EU in 2012, to join the 27-member bloc.

Reporting by Stevo Vasiljevic, writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Aleksandar Vasovic and William Maclean

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