Bishop and Priests Released in Montenegro

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Source: Peter Anderson, Seattle USA

In the early morning hours of today (Saturday), Bishop Joanikije of Budimlja and Nikšić and seven priests of the Serbian Orthodox Church were released by the prosecutor’s office in Montenegro.  (https://hosted.ap.org/TPGIMAGES/article/703f4351f8fe367f8771ebbb851fbde7/serb-church-priests-freed-detention-montenegro)  During the late hours of May 12, the bishop and the priests had been questioned by the prosecutor’s office about the annual celebration of St. Basil of Ostrog that had occurred in Nikšić  earlier that day and about certain alleged violations of governmental anti-pandemic orders occurring during the celebration.  After the initial questioning, the prosecutor announced that the eight would be detained for up to 72 hours as part of a continued  investigation.  (https://orthochristian.com/131059.html)  The laws of Montenegro apparently gives the prosecutor the right to detain individuals up to 72 hours in connection with his or her investigation.  It appears that the eight were released today exactly 72 hours after their initial detention.

The prosecutor took action after the Montenegro National Coordination Body for Infectious Diseases had called upon the State Prosecutor’s Office and the Supreme State Prosecutor to “take legal measures within their competence and prosecute the organizers [of the events in Nikšić]as soon as possible….” (https://www.coronainfocg.me/me/vijesti/ukida-se-zabrana-kretanja-otvaraju-se-ugostiteljski-objekti-i-trzni-centri)  The orders of the National Coordination Body that relate to the assembly of persons and that were in effect at the time of the May 12 celebration are set forth  at https://www.coronainfocg.me/me/naredbe/odluke-o-kretanju-i-okupljanju-2 .  In paragraph 2 of the order, all assemblies of persons (more than one person) in public areas are prohibited except for “persons who perform regular work tasks in activities permitted by orders,” “members of a joint family household,” or a person caring for a minor or disabled person.  Paragraph 8 relates to religious activities conducted on the property of religious communities.  It provides that with a religious building, there can be only one person for each 10 square meters of surface space.  Each person must maintain a distance of two meters and must wear a protective mask (except for religious officials performing rites).  At all entrances and exits, hand sanitizer must be provided.  On open spaces belonging to a religious organization, there can be a maximum of 20 persons who must also maintain a distance of two meters apart.  Finally, there is a provision that responsible persons at the religious facility must ensure compliance with these orders.

There a number of videos relating to the celebration in Nikšić on May 12.  The longest video (58 minutes), posted by the Ostog TV Studio, shows the procession, the gathering in Freedom Square, and the return to the Cathedral of St. Basil, including the veneration of the relics within the cathedral by the faithful.  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9Igt0b5_kI)  The procession appears to be very well organized and peaceful.  In front of Metropolitan Amfilohije and Bishop Joanikije are two long columns of religious sisters preceded by banners, the relics of St. Basil, and  large icons.  A person behind Bishop Joanikije is carrying a basin of holy water and at various times the bishop blesses the faithful with it.  Beginning at 20:35 in the video, one can obtain a good view of the size of the very large crowd packed into Freedom Square.  There is general agreement in the media that several thousand people were present.  Beginning at 39:10 and ending at 55:40, Metropolitan Amfilohije gives an address at the top of the steps and in front of the entrance to St. Basil Cathedral.  Immediately thereafter, there are good views of the hundreds of people gathered in church yard to listen to him.  Beginning at 56:10 one can see the large crowd moving forward and then entering the church.  Beginning at 57:16, the video shows the stream of people entering the cathedral and then the crowd of people within the cathedral waiting to venerate the relics of St. Basil.  I did not see a single face mask or any hand sanitizers.  At the very end, one can see the people kissing the icon and the glass over the relics before the glass was cleaned.  A second video shows the formation of the procession.  (https://www.rferl.org/a/montenegro-serbia-church-religion-/30615290.html)  One can see the banners and the large icons being carried down the steps of the cathedral with the faithful standing on either side.  If one looks carefully, one can see the faithful then falling in behind the icon and banner bearers.

Looking at the anti-pandemic orders and the videos, it is almost certain that a court would conclude that the anti-pandemic orders were grossly violated.    The key question for the court would be whether church officials were powerless to prevent these violations.  On May 14, the Episcopal Council of the Orthodox Church in Montenegro (Serbian Patriarchate) issued a press release.  (http://www.spc.rs/eng/press_release_episcopal_council_orthodox_church_montenegro) (official English translation).  It provided in part:

Yesterday, Metropolitan Amfilohije, Bishop Joanikije and the clergy decided that, due to health measures, only a prayer should be held in the church, without a prayer procession outside the church.  However, there were so many people that couldn’t enter the church so they were standing around the church and into the streets.  When they spontaneously moved into the traditional walk, there was no alternative for the clergy – neither before God nor before believers.  Although the previous decision of the local clergy was to offer a prayer in the place of worship, people asked for something else.  The clergy decided to stay with them precisely because of the concern that in any other way they would be left to be by themselves and possibly abused. 

Time will tell whether this defense will be successful before the courts.  I am sure that the prosecutor will argue that the videos will show that procession from the beginning formed behind the hierarchs as opposed to the hierarchs simply joining the procession that was already walking towards Freedom Square.  The organized nature of the procession including the columns of sisters, the banners, and icons indicated that all of this did not happen spontaneously or at a moment’s notice.  There was no explanation in the statement as to why it was not possible at the close of the Metropolitan’s address to limit the number entering the cathedral at one time, to require those entering to wear masks, and to observe other protective measures required by the orders.

Although Montenegro has been fairly effective in limiting the coronavirus, its rate of positive tests per population (516/M) has not been as good as such European countries as Greece (270/M), Slovakia (273/M), Bulgaria (313/M), or Albania (324/M).  (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries)  In the Nikšić Municipality (population approximately 72,000), there have been 34 positive cases.  (https://www.coronainfocg.me/)  In the last week and one-half, the situation has improved in Montenegro.  The last positive test was on May 5 and the last death on May 9.  This may have led the participants in the celebration on May 12 to believe that coronavirus had disappeared completely from Montenegro or that the risk was very minimal.

On the night of May 13, major protests occurred over the detention of the bishop and priests.  (https://balkaninsight.com/2020/05/14/protesters-clash-with-police-in-montenegro-after-priests-arrest/) The latter article stated:  “Police battled protesters in Pljevlja and Nikšić with tear gas, leaving dozens of police officers and protesters injured.  Protests also took place in Budva, Berane and the capital, Podgorica.… While some media accused the police of using excessive force on protesters, the police directorate claimed that some of the protesters had thrown stones, wounding 22 policemen.”  The next night, May 14, approximately 700 protesters gathered in Nikšić, 1,500 in Berane, 280 in Budva, 1,500 in Pljevlja, and 60 in Bijelo Polje.  (https://www.b92.net/eng/news/region.php?yyyy=2020&mm=05&dd=15&nav_id=108495)  Aside from the question of who provoked the violence, it would appear that assembly in such numbers clearly violated the anti-pandemic orders.

On May 13 in Belgrade, the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church issued a sharp statement which included the following:  “The Holy Synod of Bishops appeals to the authorities in Montenegro to stop the persecution of the Church and finally to start behaving in accordance with the norms of civilization, according to which free confession of faith is one of the most important rights of every individual.”  (http://www.spc.rs/sr/saopshtenje_za_javnost_svetog_arhijerejskog_sinoda_7)  On May 14, Prime Minister Duško Marković of Montenegro issued a long statement referring to the “mass violation of health orders and measures” in several cities in the last two days.  (http://www.gov.me/en/News/224447/PM-Markovic-addresses-public-Montenegro-is-exposed-to-brutal-attack-Government-will-perform-its-constitutional-duty-and-defend-n.html) (official English translation of entire text)

Bishop Joanikije, after his release today, discussed the matter with the  media. (http://www.spc.rs/sr/saopshtenje_za_javnost_svetog_arhijerejskog_sinoda_7) He stated that while he was in custody, the police “behaved professionally and humanely.”  He explained that when he saw the number of people gathered in front of the church after the initial prayer service, he decided in consultation with Metropolitan Amfilohije and the clergy that chaos would occur if the people were disappointed and a procession was not held.  He contends that the authorities by their actions are “waging war against St. Basil” and that this is not good.  He emphasized: “We want freedom of religion, we want order in the state, we want the Constitution and the law to be respected.”  In his reported remarks, there was no mention of any anti-pandemic orders or precautions.

Metropolitan Amfilohije, speaking to a large crowd last night outside of the building where the bishop and priests were being detained, warned that if the government continued, it provokes a civil war with its actions, it is preparing a civil war.  (https://rs.sputniknews.com/regioni/202005151122579161-dramaticno-upozorenje-mitropolita-amfilohija-vlast-izaziva-i-priprema-gradjanski-rat/)  Hopefully, with the end of the 72-hour detention period, matters will calm down – at least a little.

Peter Anderson, Seattle USA

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