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banner Friday, 4 August, 2000, 16:41 GMT 17:41 UK
The final battle of Yugoslavia
priest
Metropolitan Mihailo wants the Montenegrin Church to part from the Serbian Orthodox Church

Exclusive report from Phil Rees in Montenegro

This story will be shown on Saturday 5 August on BBC2 at 19:00 (BST)

Alongside Serbia, Montenegro is the only nation to remain in President Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia after Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia parted amid war. Last year, Montenegro's pro-Western leader, Milo Djukanovic, threatened to call a referendum on its independence from Serbia unless Milosevic changed his policy toward the smaller republic. Milosevic has refused to budge.

More than a decade of Milosevic's rule has resurrected Montenegrin nationalism, turning it into potent political force.
The Church has become a central symbol of this dispute over nationhood.

Priests are on the frontline of a religious battleground. "One of them told us, 'We will cut your throats. Almost every day there is one more case of our priests beaten up on the streets.'" Father Jovan, a Serbian Orthodox priest, was speaking to me on the balcony of Montenegro's ancient monastery in Cetinje, the former capital of this tiny Adriatic country. Jovan and his colleagues have become caught up in the battle for Montenegro's independence.

The 15th Century monastery is built into the hillside and overlooks Cetinje, a town of former palaces and embassies. Cetinje was the capital of Montenegro when it was an independent nation - a status it lost afte World War I. Under pressure from Serbia, it became part of a federation of Balkan nations. The Montenegrin Orthodox Church was incorporated within its Serbian counterpart.

Now, for the first time since 1920, the self-anointed inheritors of the old Montenegrin Church have conducted the liturgy. Their church is a converted suburban house, less than a mile from the Monastery. The archbishop, known in the Orthodox faith as a Metropolitan, is a tall man, with a long flowing white beard and dressed in a robe of black silk.

"In Russia, there isn't a Serbian Orthodox Church, but the Russian Orthodox Church, in Bulgaria there is Bulgarian one, in Romania a Romanian one," Metropolitan Mihailo told me. "I believe that God has now turned to Montenegro. I believe that the salvation of Montenegro is close."
skull
Father Jovan shows the skull of a Turk killed in the 18th century by Serbs

In Montenegro, the Serbian Orthodox Church is the official faith, often Baptising children born in Montenegro into the Serbian nation. The head of the Serbian Church in Montenegro is Metropolitan Amfilohije, a short man with a dauntingly severe expression. He describes the Montenegrin Church as being a cult of atheists and has invoked a curse against his rival Metropolitan.

Politics and religion are closely entwined here, and each side uses a parallel version of history to support its case. Metropolitan Amfilohije denies that Montenegro exists as a separate nation, arguing that it was Serbs who found refuge in Montenegro's barren hills during medieval times: "There's plenty of evidence that from the time of the Slavic immigration to the Balkans, Serbs have lived here," he says. "This was a Serbian state, and has been since the Middle Ages onwards."

The re-emergence of the Serbian Church after half a century of Communist control in the 1980s was accompanied by the revival of Serb nationalism. The two appeared linked, and when Serb nationalism took on its violent expression in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia, the Church was slow and hesitant in criticising the savagery committed in the name of Serbia.


The rights and identity of the (Serbian) church are endangered again. Nobody has the right to do that. It's clear to everyone who knows the mentality of Montenegrins, of us here, that that could be a challenge for civil war

Metropolitan Amfilohije
Metrolpolitan Mihailo distributes a book entitled "The Crimes of Amfilohije". It portrays Amfilohije as a hardened Serb nationalist and includes accounts of meetings with indicted war criminals. A picture records a visit to Cetinje Monastery by a notorious paramilitary leader known as Arkan, who was wanted for war crimes until his recent murder.

Mihailo's makes a dramatic accusation: "Mr Amfilohije should be called to account at the Hague Tribunal. I think it should happen and it will happen. These people should be warned, because Mr Amfilohije wants to provoke the same crises in Montenegro as in former Yugoslavia.
Metropolitan Mihailo

Metropolitan Amfilohije laughs off such accusations, claiming that people are paid to attack him for political reasons. Amongst this welter of abuse, Amfilohije goes on to assert that a priest in the Metropolitan Church is a thief on the run from the police in Serbia, that other clergy have broken their vows and that another has "problems with women".

As the verbal exchanges have become more menacing, the anger has spilt onto the streets. Serbian priests have been assaulted and there have been brawls involving rival church groups. As a reprisal, the windows in Metropolitan Mihailo's car were smashed and bricks thrown at his vehicle.

He says he fears for his life: "There are more arms in the Monastery in Cetinje than in the town's police station. All the priests are armed," he warns darkly.

One of Cetinje's most vocal nationalists and a devout member of the Montenegrin church is Bobo Bogdanovic. "Priests from the Serbian Church in Cetinje are an academy for war criminals.

There are more arms in the Monastery in Cetinje than in the town's police station. All the priests are armed

Metropolitan Mihailo
They have genocidal intentions and don't belong to any religion," he exclaims.

Bogdanovic with his barrel chest and upright gait is regularly seen in the street-side cafes of Cetinje. He is known locally as the "general" because of his involvement in a local militia committed to fight for Montenegrin independence. He hates priests such as Jovan: "They are devils in human shape", he growls. "They have been made into instruments of Serbian politics. Those people are evil."

Father Jovan, who learnt English from British pop music in the 1980s, is softly spoken but was shaking with anger. "They accuse us of being war criminals. Where is their proof? Did I ever ask anyone to kill for me? In a normal country, these people would have been in jail a long time ago."

Jovan accuses Bobo Bogdanovic and his supporters of stirring up the trouble in the town. "These people are in fact anti-God. Their interest is to destroy the church. They are anti-God and anti-Christ. And that's the most terrible thing that the Orthodox faith has experienced in 2000 years of Christianity."

The key battle in the months to come will be over the control of Montenegro's more than 600 churches. Most places of worship are now administered by the Serbian Church, including the main Monastery in Cetinje.

phil rees
Phil Rees examines the religious landscape in Montenegro
The Montenegrin Church is slowly aiming to take over abandoned churches and those in areas where the faithful are in favour of independence. Metropolitan Mihailo predicts that he and his priests will soon replace Amfilohije at Cetinje's Monastery.

Metropolitan Amfilohije is indignant. "Who can hand-over the property of someone else? That would be illegal, a form of stealing." The Metropolitan went on to issue an unsettling warning. "The rights and identity of the (Serbian) church are endangered again. Nobody has the right to do that. It's clear to everyone who knows the mentality of Montenegrins, of us here, that that could be a challenge for civil war."

The Final Battle of Yugoslavia, shown on Saturday 5 August 2000 on BBC2 at 19:00 (BST)

Producer: Frank Smith

Reporter: Phil Rees

Editor: Fiona Murch

Click here for transcripts

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Video
Phil Rees reports on the differing political factions in Montenegro
Video
The Orthodox Church is divided with nationalism more powerful than God
See also:

04 Aug 00 | Crossing Continents
Brinksmanship in Montenegro
28 Jul 00 | Europe
Milosevic bids for another term
31 Jul 00 | Europe
Anti-Milosevic 'plot' foiled

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