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Protests erupt against new Montenegro govt over religion law

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People shout slogans during a protest against the new government in Podgorica, Montenegro, Monday, Dec. 28, 2020. Several thousand people rallied Monday in Montenegro, accusing the new government of being pro-Serb because of its plans to amend a religious property law that is strongly opposed by the Serbian Orthodox Church. (AP Photo/Risto Bozovic)

PODGORICA – Several thousand people rallied Monday in Montenegro, accusing the young country's new government of being pro-Serb because of its plans to amend a religious property law that is strongly opposed by the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Carrying Montenegrin flags and chanting “Treason,” protesters gathered outside the parliament building in Podgorica, the capital, where lawmakers plan to discuss the proposed changes.

The demonstration was the first major protest in the small Balkan country against the coalition government that came to power after the opposition won a slim majority over a long-ruling pro-Western party during an August parliamentary election.

The religious property law was an issue in the election. The Serbian Orthodox Church alleged the law was designed to strip the church of its property, which the previous government denied. The church led months of protests that helped strengthen the opposition ahead of the election.

Montenegro declared independence from a union with Serbia following a 2006 referendum. The country's residents remain divided over relations with Belgrade. Some 30% of Montenegrins identify themselves as Serbs, and the Serbian Orthodox Church enjoys the biggest following of any organized religion.

The previous government, led by the Democratic Party of Socialists, steered Montenegro away from the influence of Serbia and Russia. The Adriatic nation joined NATO in 2017 and is seeking European Union membership.

Participants at Monday's demonstration blasted the new government's plan to revoke parts of the religious law dealing with property. They accused the government of setting the stage for the “occupation” of Montenegro.

It was not immediately clear when the parliamentary vote on amending the law will take place.

Despite calls to adhere to measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the protesters crowded together, many without masks. Montenegro has reported 666 virus deaths in a nation of 620,000 people.