PODGORICA (Reuters) - Hundreds of backers of Montenegro's pro-Serb opposition took to the streets of the capital Podgorica on Thursday, rallying against a law they say would strip the Serbian Orthodox Church there of its property.
Ahead of a vote on the draft Law on Religious Freedoms, expected later on Thursday or on Friday, Serbian Orthodox clergy and believers held a service on a packed bridge near parliament, watched by police who had sealed off city centre roads and approaches to the government building.
The law envisages that religious communities in the tiny Adriatic state would need to prove property ownership from before 1918, when predominantly Orthodox Christian Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the predecessor of the now-defunct Yugoslavia.
The Serbian Orthodox Church is the biggest church in Montenegro, a country of 620,000 people, while the much smaller Montenegrin Orthodox Church remains unrecognised by other major churches. Overall, the Serbian Orthodox Church has around 12 million followers, mostly in neighbouring Serbia.
Despite the protests, the 81-seat parliament in which the ruling coalition led by the Democratic Party of Socialists of President Milo Djukanovic has a slim majority of three seats, has decided to start debating the law.
Bishop Metodije of the Serbian Orthodox Church said the law was unconstitutional.
"We will address all international institutions because of such brutal violations of religious freedoms," he told the crowd.
The government of Montenegro, which is a European Union membership candidate and a NATO member, has denied it would strip any religious community of its property.
The Serbian church in Montenegro, which owns 66 mainly medieval monasteries, dozens of churches and other real estate there, insists the state wants to impound its assets.
"This law would bring nothing good to anyone," Predrag Scepanovic, a priest, told protesters.
Montenegro peacefully split from its former federal partner and much larger Serbia in 2006.
Pro-Western Djukanovic, Montenegro's long-serving leader, has recently accused the Serbian church of promoting pro-Serb policies that are aimed at undermining Montenegrin statehood.
(Reporting by Stevo Vasiljevic in Podgorica; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)