NATO, Britain Must Stand With Montenegro’s Christians

APPG members Steve Baker and Tim Farron have written a forceful op-ed published in Newsweek urging action to defend Christians in Montenegro.

We may sit on opposite sides of the British House of Commons, divided by party and the great issue of Europe. Yet we stand united by our Christian faith—and our conviction that all have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

The liberty to worship is a fragile thing. That freedom must be defended and protected everywhere. We both know, from personal experience, the pressures of reconciling our faith with politics—and that is in Britain, where views on religion and belief are considered enlightened.

That is why, last year, we both welcomed the Bishop of Truro’s report for the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, outlining a new, robust foreign policy stance to counter Christian persecution and committing the British government to fight full-throttle for the freedom of Christians worldwide.

Today, that fight has come closer to home than most realise. In a small country in Europe, barely a thousand miles from Britain, Christians and their clergy are being threatened, beaten and incarcerated for seeking to defend their faith and their right to worship in the manner of their choosing. One of their bishops has written of his arrest, along with hundreds of others, and how tens of thousands of the faithful have taken to the streets to defend their church and freedom of expression.

Last December, the government of Montenegro forced a new “Law on Religious Freedom” through its parliament, arresting opposition MPs opposed to its passage. A state-issued license is now mandatory to practice religion; faith communities’ assets require state registration, with government appointees made the decision-makers over all religious property disputes, and no recourse provided via the courts.

This decision flies in the face of modern, democratic parliamentary norms, the rule of law, property rights and the rights of individuals to practice their faith before God and without state and politicians serving as intermediaries.

When some 80 percent of Montenegrins are followers of the Serbian Orthodox Church—the 800-year-old Balkans branch of Christian Orthodoxy—it becomes a discriminatory law for Christians, its property measures a case of “Grand Theft Altar.”

We know this to be true, for Montenegro’s administration—led by the same man and party for an unbroken 30 years—has a reputation. Those few who have cared to shine a light do not like what they see: corruption, the downgrading of Montenegro’s status from new democracy to hybrid authoritarian regime, the smothering of political opposition and the silencing of journalists.

President Djukanovic has benefited and been too easily accepted through a lack of scrutiny by Western powers. His shift from acolyte of Slobodan Milosevic to European Union aspirant with no discernible intervening period should have raised suspicions. His naming as Person of the Year in Organized Crime and Corruption, described as “a lifetime achievement award” by the bestowing NGO, even more so. But it did not. Instead, he was welcomed into NATO.

Perhaps Montenegro was considered too small and too distant from the greater challenges of global politics to focus more than fleetingly on its paucity of good governance. Yet by challenging the rights of Christians, Djukanovic has put his country on the map. And now, in debt to the Chinese, and with a 30-year-long rule to extend, there appears no cash on hand to oil the wheels without recourse to property confiscation.

It is important for Britain and her allies to act, and in haste. In recent days, with further arrests of Christians, including the metropolitan archbishop and head of the church in Montenegro, more priests and medical doctors rallying in their support, the destruction of buildings at a monastery and a police assault on opposition politicians, it is clear the authorities do not intend to pause.

But choices have consequences. We should not stand by and allow political avarice to ascend the right to freedom of faith. There must be a reckoning.

NATO’s commitment to the citizens of Montenegro comes without question, just as it does for all peoples in the Alliance. But this should not be the same for a country’s political leadership when it contravenes its Treaty conventions to defend the “common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law”.

Britain may assist, in concert with other leading contributors to the Alliance, to cauterize cooperation with those politically responsible. Technical assistance can be blocked, bank accounts can be frozen and travel can be denied. And no British government resources should be given that may benefit, directly or indirectly, those responsible for creating and implementing this assault on Christians and the church they choose.

Instead, the British government may consider opening the John Bunyan Fund for Freedom of Religion and Belief and the wider Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy to assist those locally in Montenegro who are reporting and defending the right to free thought and conscience.

If we are to fight the good fight and defend the rights of Christians worldwide, there is no excuse for us to stay silent, play deaf and do nothing when attacks on the faithful are underway in Europe.


In Europe: Christians under attack

By Bishop Joanikije, Op-ed Contributor

On May 25, a young orthodox vicar, Reverend Nikola Radovic, was brutally assaulted by a gang of masked attackers outside his church in Bar – a town on the Adriatic coast – where he had just celebrated communion with his parishioners. His assailants were as young and as locally-born as he. Yet as they set upon him they claimed he was the agent of a foreign power.

Only days before, just 60 miles from Bar, I and seven priests performed a service inside St. Basil of Ostrog Monastery, one of the holiest sites of Orthodox Christianity. It was in private, without worshipers, and with a prior announcement made that the annual public Saint Basil’s Day street procession was cancelled due to the coronavirus lockdown. Still, the faithful had gathered outside in their thousands, and I went to implore them to respect social distancing, and return home.

The arrests began in the evening. We were taken from our vicarage. They continued for several days, with police brutalizing and incarcerating hundreds of parishioners as they came out in towns and villages across the country to protest our imprisonment. Then they moved on, detaining archdeacons and a further 25 priests.

This should not be happening in Montenegro – a country in the heart of Europe that is majority Christian, a NATO member and a candidate for European Union membership. We fear the reason why it is is money.

Before Christmas, a new law perniciously named the Law on Religious Freedom came into force. Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups – and their assets – now require state registration.

There are few states in the world that genuinely practice freedom of religion yet compel faith communities to first be on an approved government register. There are even fewer that stipulate they must additionally prove the ownership of property before 1918 with the government land registry.

When some 80 percent of Montenegrins are Serbian Orthodox Christians it means that this law in practice is a law for their faith. And when other religious micro-communities have distinct and special treaties with the state that protects them from its property stipulations, it becomes a discriminatory law against the property of the Church.

Land ownership in the Balkans – with its complexities of history and long-shifting borders – should be open to contestation. But in any modern country property disputes should and are heard in courtrooms. In Montenegro, under the new law, they shall instead be decided by the government land registry itself, with no right to appeal their decision in the courts. They have been appointed auditor, judge, jury and executor of all ownership disputes for religious property.

These are holy places of Christian worship, monasteries, hostels for the homeless, and farms that feed many hundreds of families each and every day through soup kitchens. They are buildings that fund university scholarships for young Montenegrins, sanctuary for the destitute and spiritual nourishment.

Those of faith and those in need cannot afford not to have their Church unable to support them. Yet with this law, those property are under threat, and the resources that the Church uses for good is in danger of being diverted to fend off fictitious land ownership claims.

Many faithful Christians in Montenegro fear this will occur. That is why, before the coronavirus lockdown, they came out onto the streets across the country to protest this wrongful law. Sixty thousand alone marched in the capital Podgorica – some ten percent of the entire population – gathered in a single mass demonstration, calling for its recall.

The government has reacted by claiming the Church is a foreign influence in the country, its priests and leaders not of Montenegro. Because we are called the Serbian Orthodox Church this can unfortunately be made to sound credible in the parliaments of Europe and the corridors of the US Congress. Yet we have had the same name across the Balkans for eight hundred years.

No one would suggest that the Roman Catholic Church is Roman, nor its priests and parishioners anything but local to the many countries where Catholicism is practiced. It is no different with our Church: our vicars, monks and worshipers are as equally loyal to their country of citizenship as they are subjects to their faith.

Reverend Radovic realized this, and his reaction to his brutal assault before his own church was the act of a man of God. When the culprits were found, he asked for charges not to be brought. He begged instead for forgiveness from his assailants, and for them to show the same grace through a donation to his parish. When they could not afford to do so, he gave them the donation himself – and they duly gave it to the church.

We wish only for peace and to continue to serve the people. We have no interest in politics. We believe that government should have no interest in religion. As in Luke 23:34 we forgive them, for they do not know what they do. And we pray that they turn back, and recall this unnecessary law.

His Grace Bishop Joanikije is Bishop of Budimlja and Nikši in Montenegro