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Montenegro frees priests held for breaking lockdown

AFP , Saturday 16 May 2020
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Montenegro released a Serbian Orthodox bishop and seven priests on Saturday days after they were held for violating coronavirus lockdown measures by organising a procession.

Their detention on Wednesday sparked protests throughout the tiny Balkan nation, ending in clashes in two towns with more than 50 protesters arrested and 26 police officers slightly injured.

Police in Nikisc fired tear gas to disperse a crowd that was throwing stones and bottles.

"Your support is the continuation of our fight for our sacred things," Niksic bishop Joanikije told the crowd waiting for his release in front of the local police station.

The crowd chanted "We don't give up our sacred things!" and "We don't give up on you Bishop!"

Several thousand people took part in the procession held on Tuesday evening in Niksic, after which the eight priests were detained.

They are accused of having violated a ban on public gatherings aimed at halting the spread of the novel virus.

If found guilty they face up to 12 years in jail.

Montenegro this week eased lockdown measures allowing churches to hold mass again.

But believers must adhere to social distancing rules and wear face masks at the services.

All other large public gatherings like the one held in Niksic are still not permitted.

The country of 620,000 people has 324 recorded coronavirus infections and nine deaths.

The Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), whose seat is in Belgrade, is Montenegro's main religious body although the country split from Serbia in 2006 after nearly 90 years.

Ties between the SPC and the Montenegrin authorities became strained after the adoption of a controversial religious freedom law in December.

The law could see a large number of monasteries held by the SPC become state property.

The SPC accuses Podgorica of using the legislation to boost the fortunes of the independent Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which still lacks global recognition.

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