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Belgrade has strongly criticized the detention of eight Serbian Orthodox Church priests in Montenegro after thousands of people attended a religious procession despite a ban on gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prosecutors said on May 13 that the eight priests were facing up to 12 years in prison on charges of violating virus restrictions by organizing the procession on May 12 in the western Montenegrin town of Niksic.

Video and pictures from the procession show most participants didn’t wear face masks or keep a safe distance from each other.

“They [the priests] are accused of the criminal offense of violating health rules in the prevention of a dangerous contagious disease,” prosecutor Stevo Sekaric said in a statement.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej voiced hope in a joint statement on May 13 that the arrests won’t spark any “unwanted unrest or clashes” after Serbian believers protested the arrests by blocking a road in northern Montenegro and causing a huge traffic jam.

Vucic urged a peaceful resolution of the crisis and a quick release of the priests.

Irinej said the detentions were “proof that the Montenegrin state is conducting a purge of the Serbian Orthodox Church.”

The arrests highlighted the ongoing tensions between Montenegro’s pro-Western authorities and the Serbian Orthodox Church, which they see as a tool for meddling by Moscow-backed Serbia.

Earlier this year, the Serbian Orthodox Church led weeks of protests in Montenegro against a religious law that it says would strip the church of its property in the country.

The law that came into force in January says religious communities must prove property ownership from before 1918, the year when Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and its church was subsumed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, losing all of its property in the process.

The Serbian Orthodox Church says the law is aimed at retaking its property. Montenegrin officials have repeatedly denied the allegations.

Montenegro, a country of 620,000 people, split from Serbia in a referendum in 2006 and further turned away from Belgrade and its Orthodox ally Russia, taking a pro-Western course and joining NATO in 2017. The country has also been negotiating European Union membership.

Serbian nationalists in both countries have never fully recognized Serbia’s separation from Montenegro, which they claim is historically Serbian territory.

With reporting by AP and dpa