Police in Montenegro have fired teargas at protesters as the new head of the Serbian Orthodox church in the country arrived by helicopter for his inauguration.
The decision to anoint Bishop Joanikije as the new metropolitan of Montenegro at the historic monastery of Cetinje has aggravated ethnic tension in the tiny Balkan state.
Protesters had blocked roads since Saturday in an attempt to prevent access to the small town, both the headquarters of the Serbian Orthodox church (SPC) and a symbol of sovereignty for some Montenegrins.
Montenegro 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. Opponents accuse the SPC of serving Belgrade’s interests.
According to images released by the SPC, Joanikije was dropped off by helicopter on the monastery’s lawn and rushed in under the sound of bells.
A security perimeter had been set up by police around the 15th-century building to protect the brief enthronement ceremony, and police fired teargas and sound bombs to clear the protesters from the monastery.
Metropolitan Joanikije was named to his new post in May, after the death of his predecessor Metropolitan Amfilohije from Covid-19.
Thousands of protesters had on Saturday used cars or piled up rocks to block roads, with many spending the night huddled around fires to keep warm.
“I am here to show my love for the country,” said one protester, Saska Brajovic, 50. “We are not asking for anything from anyone else, but we are dismissed by the occupying Serbian church. We are here defending our dignity.”
The protesters are backed by the Democratic party of Socialists of President Milo Đukanović, which has accused neighbouring Serbia and the SPC of “dismissing Montenegro and Montenegrins, as well as the integrity” of his country.
Djukanovic had been eager to curb the SPC’s clout in Montenegro and build up an independent Orthodox church but his party lost elections in August 2020 and the current government led by the prime minister, Zdravko Krivokapić, has accused him of deliberately stoking the recent tensions for political purposes.