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Police clash with opponents of Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro

The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro was inaugurated in the state's old capital on Sunday amid clashes between police and protesters who oppose continued Serb influence in the tiny Balkan nation.

Hospital officials say at least 60 people were injured in violence surrounding inauguration of new church head

A demonstrator is covered in tear gas during a protest in Cetinje, Montenegro, against the inauguration of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the country, Metropolitan Joanikije, on Sunday. (Stevo Vasiljevic/Reuters)

Arriving in a military helicopter, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro was inaugurated in the state's old capital on Sunday amid clashes between police and protesters who oppose continued Serb influence in the tiny Balkan nation.

Hospital officials in the city of Cetinje said at least 60 people were injured, including 30 police officers, in clashes that saw police launch tear gas against the demonstrators, who hurled rocks and bottles at them and fired gunshots into the air. At least 15 people were arrested.

Sunday's ceremony angered opponents of the Serbian church in Montenegro, which declared independence from neighbouring Serbia in 2006. Since Montenegro split from Serbia, pro-independence Montenegrins have advocated for a recognized Orthodox Christian church that is separate from the Serbian one.

Evading road blockades set up by the demonstrators, the new head of the Serbian church in Montenegro, Metropolitan Joanikije, arrived in Cetinje by a helicopter along with the Serbian Patriarch Porfirije. TV footage showed the priests being led into the Cetinje monastery by heavily armed riot police holding a bulletproof blanket to shield their bodies.

Montenegro riot police guard a road near Cetinje on Sunday. Riot police used tear gas on protesters who fired gunshots in the air and hurled bottles and stones. (Risto Bozovic/The Associated Press)

Porfirije later wrote on Instagram that he was happy that the inauguration was held, but added that he was "horrified by the fact" that someone near the monastery wanted to prevent the ceremony "with a sniper rifle." The claim could not be immediately independently verified.

The demonstrators set up road barriers with trash containers, tires and large rocks in an attempt to prevent church and state dignitaries from coming to the inauguration.

Chanting "This is not Serbia!" and "This is Montenegro!," many of the protesters spent the night at the barriers amid reports that police were sending reinforcements to break through the blockade. Tires at one blockade were set on fire.

A demonstrator gestures as a barricade is set on fire during a protest against the inauguration of Bishop Joanikije in Cetinje on Sunday. (Stevo Vasiljevic/Reuters)

Montenegrins remain deeply divided over their country's ties with neighbouring Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church, which is the country's dominant religious institution. Around 30 per cent of Montenegro's 620,000 people consider themselves Serb.

Joanikije said after the ceremony that "the divisions have been artificially created and we have done all in our power to help remove them, but that will take a lot of time."

Politicians divided in reaction

In a clear demonstration of the sharp political and social divide in Montenegro, President Milo Djukanovic, the architect of the state's independence from Serbia, visited Cetinje while the current pro-Serb Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic went to Podgorica to welcome the Serbian patriarch.

While Krivokapic branded the protests as "an attempted terrorist act," Djukanovic said the protesters in Cetinje were guarding national interests against the alleged bid by the much larger Serbia to impose its influence in Montenegro through the church.

Djukanovic accused the current Montenegrin government of "ruthlessly serving imperial interests of [Serbia] and the Serbian Orthodox Church, which is a striking fist of Serbian nationalism, all against Montenegro."

The Serbian Orthodox Church's Patriarch Porfirije, right, and Bishop Joanikije walk through the crowd gathered in front of the Orthodox cathedral in Podgorica on Saturday. (Savo Prelevic/AFP/Getty Images)

Montenegro's previous authorities led the country to independence from Serbia and defied Russia to join NATO in 2017. Montenegro also is seeking to become a European Union member.

In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic, who has been accused by the opposition in Montenegro of meddling in its internal affairs in conjunction with Russia, congratulated Joanikije on his inauguration and praised the government for going ahead with the ceremony despite the clashes.

"Cetinje is a town where some 90 per cent of the people are against the Serbian Orthodox Church, where there is hate towards everyone who is not Montenegrin," Vucic said in Belgrade. "This is not a real hate, its hate that is induced by certain politicians in Montenegro, so it was quite logical to expect what happened there."

Monetenegrin Orthodox Christians gather in front of the Orthodox cathedral in Podgorica on Saturday to celebrate the inauguration of the new bishop. (Savo Prelevic/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. government urged all sides "to urgently de-escalate the situation," according to a U.S. Embassy statement.

"Religious freedom and the freedom of expression, including to peacefully assemble, must be respected," it said.

Joanikije's predecessor as the church's leader in Montenegro, Amfilohije, died in October after contracting COVID-19.

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