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Churches face ‘transfer of ownership’ by socialist government: Bishop

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A new chapter of the state’s oppression of religion in the Balkans began last December, when the socialist government of Montenegro passed a law allowing the government to strip a longstanding, recognized church of its property and potentially transfer it to another sect under more amenable leadership.

In the wee hours of the morning shortly after Christmas, politicians in Montenegro passed the Law on Religious Freedom.

The Balkans have known no shortage of religious repression – collectively under Communism, and individually once the seething ethnic tensions that Marxism suppressed exploded into the open.

The new law accomplishes the purpose of the leader, Milo Đukanović, a “former” Communist who now heads the Democratic Party of Socialists. Đukanović wants Montenegrin independence recognized and, as one step toward that goal, favors jettisoning the traditional Serbian Orthodox Church in favor of the Montengrin Orthodox Church (which is not recognized as legitimate by other Orthodox churches).

To further this aim, the new law would strip the Serbian Orthodox Church of any building which it cannot prove it owned prior to December 1, 1918; that would prove difficult, as the Serbian Orthodox Church absorbed the churches of Montenegro in 1920.

The state would assume ownership of the churches, which could then be given to friendlier leadership.

“The goal of the Law on Religious Freedom is to politically restrict religious freedom and threaten the [Serbian Orthodox] Church itself,” said Bishop Joanikije of Budimlja and Niksic in a new interview with Jovan Tripkovic in Religion Unplugged.

Tripkovic contributes a full article to the law in the forthcoming issue of Religion & Liberty. In the more recent interview, he asks the bishop:

Tripkovic: What is, according to you, the essence of this law? Which article or articles do you find most problematic and why?

Bishop: Let us start with the facts. Namely, the state of Montenegro signed written agreements with the Roman Catholic Church, Jewish and Islamic communities several years before adopting this law and, among other things, confirmed their full and traditional legal standing. Not only were they enabled to continue their legal life undisturbed, but it was also acknowledged that these religious communities had full legal standing. The state also recognized their right to perform religious rites, establish religious schools, celebrate religious holidays, to have the right to restitution of property, peaceful ownership and acquisition of immovable and movable property. If all this is taken into consideration, it is evident that provisions of this new law apply only to the SOC. … The subject is even clearer when it comes to Articles 62-64 of the law because they prescribe the method by which the ownership of immovable property will be transferred from its current owner to the state of Montenegro. . The Government of Montenegro or the proponent of the law is the one that is going to engage in this proceeding of transfer of ownership. By doing this the constitutional legal order of Montenegro, which is defined as the state with the “rule of law,” is going to collapse. ….

The law underscores the importance of private property in securing religious freedom, and every other human right. If a church is built with state funds, the sanctuary belongs to the government, which can demand its property back at any time – even if it is on long-term loan.

A similar situation is taking place at St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, where thousands have protested against the Russian government returning ownership of the church, which was seized by the Bolsheviks, to the Orthodox Church.

Disregard for private property and denying religious liberty go hand-in-hand. The socialist leadership of Montenegro has begun enforcing the law with tactics religious liberty watchdogs call “neo-Communist.” A church can always exist without property, as the catacombs prove, and no weapon formed against the Body of Christ shall prevail. But the church must again suffer through deprivations caused by being on the wrong side of the government – as it did in the English Reformation, the Spanish Civil War, and at the descent of the Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe.

Read the full interview here. And look for his full overview of this concerning law in the next issue of Religion & Liberty, coming soon.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.