A crisis is brewing in the tiny ex-Yugoslav country of Montenegro. There are massive street protests, attacks on priests, and fights in the Parliament. Various domestic, regional, and international actors, interests and policies are at stake here, giving us the opportunity to learn important lessons about national (and nationalistic) ideological projects, and the role of religion and international (also imperial) aspirations in their creation. And yet, mainstream Western media have shown little interest in the matter. One can speculate why.
The Government of Montenegro proposed new legislation on religious organizations called “The Law on the Freedom of Religion,” which was approved by the Parliament on December 27, 2019. A draft version of the document is available from the website of the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights, both in the local language and in English. The legislation generated significant controversy due to its treatment of religious organizations, their internal procedures, as well as their property.
Article 4 specifies that:
“Prior to the appointment, i.e. announcement of the appointment if the highest religious leaders, a religious community shall confidentially notify the Government of Montenegro (hereinafter: the Government) about that.”
Article 16, § 1 requires that the application for registration of a religious community shall contain:
“The name of the religious community, which must be different from names of other religious communities and must not contain the official name of other state and its features”
For many, the most problematic article is 52, found under the section “Transitional and Final Provisions”:
“Religious facilities and land used by the religious communities in the territory of Montenegro and for which is found to have been built or obtained from public resources of the state or have been in state ownership until 1 December 1918, as the cultural heritage of Montenegro, shall be the property of the state. Religious facilities for which if found to have been built on the territory of Montenegro from joint investments of the citizens until 1 December 1918, shall be the property of the state.”
The law caused an outrage among the members of the Orthodox Church in Montenegro. Let me sketch some of the background which will, hopefully, render the current crisis more intelligible.
There are four Orthodox dioceses (belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church, i.e. Patriarchate of Peć) whose territory is fully or in part located on the territory of Montenegro. The Orthodox Church (i.e. these four dioceses) is, by far, the largest religious organization in the country.
The majority of both the clergy and laity view the new legislation as a purposeful targeting of the Church by the Government. They interpret Article 16, § 1 as specifically crafted against the Orthodox Church, as the above-mentioned dioceses in Montenegro belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, the Article 52 appears to be a much more serious threat. Many these churches and monasteries are centuries old, predating even the formation of the modern state of Montenegro. If enacted, Article 52 could lead to the confiscation of Church property and its sacral objects.
Why would the government do this? Why would it go against the Church, in a country where a significant majority of the population considers itself Orthodox? This is where things get complicated.
Arguably the chief political authority in Montenegro, over the past three decades, has been Milo Đukanović. He assumed the office of prime minister in 1991, and has been in power ever since, performing the roles of prime minister and president interchangeably (with a couple of years of break, 2006-2008, and 2010-2012). This style of rule brings to mind rulers in other parts of Europe who have de facto been chief figures in the political life of their countries for long periods of time, regardless of the name of the office they would hold in a given moment. Not all long-lasting autocrats are the same though: There are those who “we” (in the West) do not like very much, since they refuse to obey us (branded as “evil autocrats”), and there are “our kind of guys,” who are submissive enough to the Western political and economic centers (branded as “democratic rulers”). Milo Đukanović, of course, belongs to the latter group. During his pontificate the country joined the NATO alliance (in 2017), and he has successfully resisted a stronger Russian influence in the country.
Đukanović, once upon a time, was loyal to Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, and his allies in Montenegro. However, he switched sides just in time, and his chief project became an independent Montenegro (proclaimed in 2006) and close cooperation with Western governments, military, and multinational corporations. This where problems with the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro begin, in particular with the most prominent figure of Montenegrin religious life—Metropolitan Amfilohije (Radović). At times partners, at other times in conflict, this turbulent relationship between the politician and the metropolitan has ended up, as of now, in an open battle.
Đukanović’s vision of independent Montenegro and the new Montenegrin identity also includes the vision of an autocephalous (“self-governed”) “Montenegrin church” which would be loyal (some would suggest obedient as a much better word choice) to the State (i.e., his regime). Amfilohije and other bishops do not seem to share the same vision. For them, there is no conflict between an “authentic” Montenegrin identity and Serbian identity, and therefore no problem with the Orthodox Church in Montenegro being part of the Serbian Orthodox Church. (Nota bene, many figures and structures within the Serbian Orthodox Church are by no means innocent in the political games that have been played in the region, particularly when it comes to Serbian nationalism and the policies of various autocrats from Belgrade, but that is a topic for another analysis.)
To foster a new Montenegrin identity, Đukanović’s regime started to promote “Montenegrin Orthodox Church” as an “autocephalous” organization, headed by the colorful figure of Miraš Dedejić. According to some sources, Dedejić used to be an admirer of Slobodan Milošević and his policies. He had also been a priest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate until he was excommunicated by Patriarch Bartholomew. This organization is not recognized by any of the canonical Orthodox Churches. Even Đukanović’s support has not been full or unconditional. One is tempted to say that its purpose has primarily been to put pressure on Amfilohije to follow the “right path.”
This is how one can understand the recent actions, at least in one of their complex and intertwined dimensions: Just as the Ukrainian political leadership was advancing the (formerly) uncanonical church structures and their autocephaly in the hope that it would strengthen Ukrainian national identity, as well as the political elite who championed the project, Montenegrin leadership might hope that promoting one group, which would be loyal to one political project and obedient to the political authorities (Amfilohije has not proven himself in that role), would lead to the recognition of autocephaly of that group, with same or similar political results. Probably working out of these hopes, the regime has, then, threatened the confiscation of Church property of the “disloyal” Church, which is quietly accepted (if not blessed) by the Western political centers. The trade seems straight-forward, based on a widely-practiced strategy: “We” (political/economic centers in the West) will turn a blind eye to violence, undemocratic policies, the autocratic style of rule, breach of various rights, and so forth, and “you” (local political elites) will ensure that the (military, economic, political) interests of those centers are protected and advanced locally.
An obstacle in the case of Montenegro (unlike in the case of Ukraine) is the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarchate does not seem willing to intervene to support the formation of a new autocephalous Church, which would advance the local national identity, being closely connected to the State. Not yet at least, and not with Miraš’s team as a new autocephalous church. It seems that there is awareness that right now there are no credible candidates in Montenegro who would be willing to lead a potential autocephalous church, neither there is popular support for such project.
For those less familiar with Orthodox ecclesiology, it is worth noting that in Orthodoxy there is no equivalent role to the one of the Roman pontiff. Orthodox ecclesiology has advanced the principle of conciliarity instead of the (universal) primacy of power of one ecclesiastical/imperial center. This does not mean, of course, that there have been no attempts of ecclesiastical seats to assume such power. Indeed, just as the seat of Rome infused the universalist aspirations to power into the emptied shell of the Western (Roman) Empire, so the bishops of “New Rome” (Constantinople) have occasionally aspired to assume both universal ecclesial, and even political authority (at times when the Empire was weakened). This universalism is reflected also in the title of the bishop/patriarch of Constantinople – “Ecumenical” – as the authority of this episcopal seat, as well as the authority of the (Roman) emperor, should ideally stretch over the entire oikoumene (inhabited world). What one can see, based on the recent actions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, is the (renewed) aspiration to usurp a position within the Orthodox world which would be, in some aspects at least, comparable to the position which the Roman pontiff gradually acquired in the West. This, predictably, provokes a lot of criticism.
The entire episode can thus be understood as yet another example of how the whole concept of autocephaly, the way it is generally understood and practiced in “Orthodox countries” nowadays, is highly problematic. If autocephaly is understood as something “naturally” linked to national/ethnic identities (and/or nation states), it is both theologically unacceptable and very harmful to the body of the Church in long term. Serious Orthodox ecclesiology does not operate with the concept of “national Churches,” although it has been widely (and mistakenly) used both in the public discourse and, sometimes, in academia. Local Churches (i.e. dioceses) are organized as administrative regional ecclesiastical unites, that gather the faithful of a certain territory (for the sake of serving the Liturgy) regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, gender, class, race, etc. The predominant culture or customs have always been embraced in the Orthodox tradition, leaving a trace on how the service is conducted, which language is spoken, etc. However, the identity of the Church is not derived from the ethnic, national or other identities of the majority population of a certain territory, but from the Eucharist as the icon of the Kingdom of God. This is why an autocephalous Church makes sense as a self-governing administrative organization of dioceses of a certain region, having one of the local bishops as their own “head” (having the title of metropolitan, archbishop, pope or patriarch), but not as a “national” institution, or a Church of certain ethnic group (which, following Orthodox ecclesiology, amounts to nothing less than a heresy).
In practice, however, just as local ecclesiastical and political elites are eager to exploit the (seriously flawed) understanding of autocephaly as “national institutions,” for the sake of their own power struggles, so is the Ecumenical Patriarchate. (Neo)imperial policies of ecclesiastical centers (in this case of Phanar) can thus be very similar to the (neo)imperial policies of States; both try to manipulate local nationalisms to their own advantage. Therefore, if they serve the (neo)imperial agendas of “New Rome,” local nationalisms and local “national” churches will be blessed. If they don’t, local nationalisms and their cravings for autocephaly will be condemned in the name of (neo)imperial “universalisms.”