On Orthodox Christmas Eve, two distinct groups of Montenegrins will gather in the “royal capital” of Cetinje as they’ve done for more than two decades to mark the birth of Jesus Christ with separate blessings, bonfires, and caroling.
Part of a cherished tradition in the religious and cultural heart of the country, the rivalry is emblematic of a reignited battle between an upstart Montenegrin Orthodox Church and the ancient Serbian Orthodox Church.
Though similar in almost every way — and separated by just a few hundred meters — the two celebrating groups every January 6 are diametrically opposed on the issues of religion and nationhood in a dispute that is roiling Montenegro.
“It’s crazy,” says the 39-year-old Predrag Borilovic in Cetinje, the 15th-century town of nearly 20,000 people, about the division between those supporting the unrecognized Montenegrin Orthodox Church and those who back the established Serbian Orthodox Church.
“But [it’s crazy just] like everything else in this country,” he adds.
Borilovic’s family is one of the oldest in the historic town and provides the first of the young oak trees — known as “badnjaks” — that will fuel the fires and launch the solemn Christmas Eve ceremonies.
He and many more of the Borilovics support the ritual held at the palace of King Nikola — Montenegro’s last monarch — that is organized by the Montenegrin Orthodox Church.
The church was founded controversially in 1993 in what was largely seen as a bid to wrest local Orthodoxy from the dominant Serbian Orthodox Church.
But other members of the local Borilovic clan supply a sapling for the competing Christmas event, which is held outside the gates of the 500-year-old Cetinje Monastery.
That gathering has a longer history and is presided over by the local arm of the Serbian Orthodox Church — officially known as the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral.
“We have everything double: double language, double church, everything. And that is the big problem here [in Montenegro],” Borilovic says.
Relations between people in the tiny town are fine, he says, despite what he jokingly refers to as its two “tribes” of believers.
“Lots of the conversation [during the Christmas event] is about national politics, the national church and everything,” Borilovic says. “Then, when it’s over, they forget everything.”
But skirmishes at Christmas gatherings in Cetinje in the 1990s pitting pro-Serbian Montenegrins and agitators against pro-independence Montenegrins forced Yugoslav authorities to deploy hundreds of riot police to keep the sides separate and prevent violence.
Those confrontations eased with Montenegrin independence in 2006 — despite lingering support among some Montenegrins for Serbia and Serbian institutions — and just a few police are on hand these days for Cetinje’s badnjak celebrations.
But a new Montenegrin law on religion has once again inflamed emotions over the dominant role of the Serbian church among Montenegro’s 450,000 or so Orthodox believers — roughly two-thirds of whom worship at Serbian Orthodox services.
The country’s pro-Serbian opposition mounted protests ahead of parliamentary debate on the bill, and opposition lawmakers had to be removed after forcibly trying to block a vote that ended up taking place after midnight on December 27.
The bill passed unanimously 45-0 shortly afterward with opposition deputies either boycotting or not present for the vote because they were detained. President Milos Djukanovic, a big supporter of the legislation, must sign the bill within one week for it to become law.
In the lead-up to the vote, supporters of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro protested around the country and in front of parliament in the capital, Podgorica, on December 26.
There was also a major protest in the country’s second city of Niksic on December 21, in which the Serbian Orthodox Church supporters accused the government of imposing “discrimination and theft” with the then-draft law.
The Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro’s Metropolitan Amfilohije said at that demonstration that “these contemporary fools want to seize St. Basil’s Cathedral,” the Niksic church considered one of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s most revered in Montenegro.
The law’s passage — which could technically strip the Serbian Orthodox Church of hundreds of religious sites — has led to outrage among Serbian church authorities and followers in Montenegro and political and religious officials in Belgrade, many of whom have vowed to defend church property.
Tensions boiled over in Belgrade when a skirmish broke out in parliament on December 27, with opposition deputies slamming the government for not taking a stronger position against Montenegro’s new law.
WATCH: Fighting In The Serbian Parliament
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said the same day that he hopes “the boiling atmosphere” in Montenegro will “translate into calmer discourse” and that the ownership of Serbian Orthodox Church property will not be threatened.
“I express my concern and hope that the Serbian saints and Serbian churches will be preserved and we will, in accordance with our diplomatic capacities, strictly respect our rights and obligations without destroying the rights of any other country, to try to help our people and the church.”
He had said on December 25 that although he holds a different opinion than Djukanovic on the issue, “we have no right to interfere…in a direct way.”
Vucic’s lukewarm stance on the issue led Serbian opposition leader Bosko Obradovic to hold the protest in parliament that led to the fisticuffs.
Earlier, he had painted “Dear Thieves! We do not give you shrines” on a wall at the Montenegrin Embassy. Protesters there also held signs that read: “Why are you silent, Serbia?”
The Historical Nub
The Kingdom of Montenegro, lying in the heart of Balkan Orthodoxy, was dissolved and its territory annexed to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1918 through a fiercely disputed series of political maneuvers.
In 1920, based on authority snatched under the ad hoc resolution two years earlier, the Serbian Orthodox Church was made the sole Orthodox authority in Montenegro with jurisdiction over the previously autocephalous Montenegrin Orthodox Church.
In the view of many Montenegrins, that move was illegitimate. And passage of the new law a positive thing.
“For almost 100 years, I think we have been silent enough about a lot of things,” Vido Gluscevic, a Montenegrin Orthodox Church supporter, tells RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. “I think it’s time to restore the autocephalous and independent Montenegrin Orthodox Church in a civilized way through laws and in parliament, and it’s time to have a place to have our children baptized by Montenegrin priests and in Montenegrin churches.”
Serbian-Montenegrin relations were good within Yugoslavia, and occasional irritations during the dissolution of that country paled in comparison with the ethnically fueled violence between the other parts of Yugoslavia that killed at least 130,000 people in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
WATCH: Lawmakers Removed As Montenegrin Parliament Passes Law On Religious Communities
Serbia and Montenegro even remained within a federation until a 2006 referendum organized by Podgorica ended nearly 90 years of shared statehood.
But dramatic confrontations marred religious and other gatherings to the very end, with flag-waving, pro-Serbian crowds frequently squaring off against pro-independence Montenegrins doing the same.
Djukanovic, who has dominated Montenegrin politics in nearly three decades of state-building, has called the Belgrade-based Serbian Orthodox Church and its local iteration a “fifth column” and suggested that their influence and policies are incongruous with Montenegro’s development.
Djukanovic alleged again last year that “the Serbian Orthodox Church has very persistently been undermining Montenegrin independence.”
In November, he said his ruling party understood Montenegrins’ desire for a restoration of “the historically unquestionable Montenegrin Orthodox Church” and said it was the party’s “primary interest” to strengthen “national identity.”
Devil In The Details
The government in Podgorica withdrew a previous draft law on religion in 2016 amid international criticism, including from the Serbian Orthodox Church, minority Catholic and Muslim communities, and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which offers legal advice to protect minorities and the rule of law among its members.
Much of the new law was hailed as a positive step toward bringing Montenegro’s postindependence legislation on religion and faith up to date to replace Yugoslav-era laws.
It includes language that covers nonreligious beliefs like atheism, takes a liberal approach toward the registration of religious communities, and respects the freedom of those groups to decide on their names and symbols.
But the government appears to have sidestepped recommendations by the Venice Commission and others to be more consultative with interested parties, including the Serbian Orthodox Church.
And the bill imposes evidentiary demands on the origins of church property that have particularly alarmed the Serbian Orthodox Church and its local arm, who fear the law will dispossess them of churches and other sacred sites and effectively render them unable to tend to their adherents.
The Serbian Orthodox Church argues that it — not the Montenegrin church from 1993 — is the rightful successor to the old Montenegrin Orthodox Church that was swallowed up in 1920. The Serbian church’s Holy Synod of Bishops met in June, with an early version of the draft law circulating, to map out “steps for the protection of church property.”
The law will force the Serbian Orthodox Church — and others — to prove its rightful ownership of property dating back to before the events of 1918-20 in court or forfeit ownership to the Montenegrin state.
The Serbian church would have great difficulty keeping all of its property under such conditions as it took over many of its churches and other buildings, for instance, from the old version of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church one century ago.
“Before 1920 [or at least before 1918], the Serbian Orthodox Church owned very little property in Montenegro,” says Teuvo Laitila, assistant professor of Orthodox Church history at the University of Eastern Finland. “I have no exact statistics but, in principle, ecclesiastical movable and immovable property belonged to the Montenegrin [Orthodox] Church.”
Whatever their provenance, the Serbian Orthodox Church has claimed that it has renovated some 650 churches and monasteries over the past two decades in Montenegro.
Emil Hilton Saggau, a doctoral student at the University of Copenhagen who has studied religion in Montenegro, estimates the number of Serbian Orthodox Church properties in the country at between 700 and 800.
“But actually that’s one of the crucial things,” he says. “No one really knows what the number of historical buildings, ruins, and heritage sites is in Montenegro and no one has a clear list.”
Saggau has spent intermittent trips to Montenegro visiting sites on the Serbian church’s and his own list. He notes their condition and whether or not clergy are living on the premises.
“The most sacred sites in Montenegro for the Serbian Orthodox Church are also the most central ones in terms of Montenegrin heritage,” Saggau says.
“Because of that, I think it would be very hard for the Serbian Orthodox Church to give up any property and I think they would defend it. I’m not sure how or with what means, but I am certain that they would go a very far way to defend them.”
He adds that “it’s not hard to see” the Montenegrin government’s draft legislation as “a law primarily made against the Serbian church.”
Such a sudden, massive nationalization of disputed religious property would likely spark more than just Serbian anger; it could deal a practical blow to Orthodoxy all over the small Adriatic nation of some 620,000 people.
Djukanovic and other officials in Podgorica have encouraged the establishment of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church and its efforts to portray itself as the legitimate successor to medieval and earlier Orthodoxy in the region.
But founded by a defrocked Serbian Orthodox priest, woefully undersized, and canonically unrecognized by most of Orthodox Christianity, it has thus far attracted only around 30 percent of Orthodox Montenegrins.
“You know, it’s like Coca-Cola. You can’t simply make a soft drink and call it Coca-Cola because you have to get [the company’s] recognition. And it’s somewhat similar in Orthodoxy,” says Thomas Bremer, a professor at the University of Muenster’s Ecumenical Institute.
“Even if the law comes, they cannot push out the [Serbian Orthodox Church],” Bremer adds. “The Montenegrin Orthodox Church wouldn’t have enough people to man these churches and have priests in every parish.”
More Of The Same
Back in Cetinje, Predrag Borilovic laughs when asked if the rival crowds will be out again in force on Christmas Eve to defend their political — or national — side in the debate that has consumed Orthodoxy in Montenegro.
He predicts they definitely will be there.
“This year and for the next 10 years,” Borilovic says. “It’s a big, big problem. Ten years in the future it will be the same.”
But in the rite on January 6 that’s been familiar for far longer — after the stormy December 27 vote on the religion law less than 30 kilometers away in Podgorica — elders and their sons will set out for the woods together.
They’ll choose a young oak to serenade and fell, carefully setting aside a small segment of the trunk for the family hearth and decorating the rest — often with fruit or other symbols of fertility, faith, and tradition.
Then they’ll carry their transformed trees — now symbols of paradise — to the opposing pro-Serbian and Montenegrin ceremonies before throwing their badnjaks onto the raging bonfire.