MONTENEGRO

APRIL 18 2007 20:16h

Orthodox Churches Fight For Monastery

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Riot police intervened to stop supporters of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church from storming a monastery with Serbian church monks.

Riot police intervened on Wednesday to stop supporters of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church from storming a monastery where monks from the rival Serbian Orthodox Church had barricaded themselves inside.

Montenegro's predominantly Orthodox population mostly follow the Serbian Orthodox Church, which owns all ancient monasteries, religious relics, and large tracts of land in the country.

Since the country left its union with Serbia last year, this dominance has been challenged by the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which is not recognised by other Orthodox communities and holds services in private buildings and a few new churches.

The head of the Montenegrin church, Metropolitan Mihailo, called on his followers on Tuesday night to go to the historic Monastery of St Peter in the town of Cetinje to assert their right to worship there.

Several hundred supporters marched to the monastery, waving the red-gold Montenegrin flag and chanting 'Long Live Montenegro'.

But some 100 policemen at the gates prevented them from going into the monastery, where the resident monks and some Serbian Orthodox followers had barricaded themselves in.

"Let us in, please, or there will be bloodshed," Mihailo told policemen as his supporters were being pushed back. "If there is no Montenegrin Orthodox Church, you all are Serbs and Montenegro is a Serbian state."

He later led his supporters to a nearby church that belongs to the Montenegrin faction, and held the liturgy there.

Mihailo says his church is the rightful successor to the church which was abolished when Montenegro was absorbed into Yugoslavia in the early 20th century.

He has asked for his church to be given all the property currently belonging to the Serbian church, but Montenegro's government has largely been neutral on the dispute, saying only it would protect the property rights of the Serb church.