Buoyed by the Ukrainian Church splitting from the Russian Church - Montenegro and Macedonia attempt their own escape.

Events surrounding the push for the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church made international headlines in 2018. 

Probably the main reason for this was not so much the functional aspect of Ukrainian church politics but the geopolitical significance of the confrontation with Russia. 

Even though Ukrainians have been trying to attain recognition of their church by the rest of the Orthodox world since the 1920s, it was almost a 100 years later, in October 2018, that the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul decided that it was high time to address the question.

While the US and Canada were the two countries that congratulated the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine, established on December 15, there has not been any immediate reaction from the Orthodox world. 

This hardly comes as a surprise.

Six out of the 14 Orthodox churches voiced their concerns and unease about the Ecumenical Patriarch’s decision to grant autocephaly (independence) to Ukraine’s new church. 

Among the most vocal opponents is the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has been very critical about what it considers to be a U-turn policy of the Ecumenical Patriarch in the case of Ukraine.

In August 2018 the Patriarch of the Serbian Patriarch Irinej sent a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew reminding him (among other things) that he had given a promise in Chambesy (Geneva), in front of all the Primates, not to interfere in Ukrainian ecclesiastical affairs. 

While the closeness and fraternal relationship between the Serbian and the Russian Orthodox Church is not news in and of itself, the motives behind such strong opposition to Ukrainian autocephaly should also be considered in the context of the Serbian Church’s own fears regarding the Macedonian Orthodox Church and, to a lesser extent, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. 

These churches are also knocking on Constantinople’s door, asking for similar treatment to that given to Ukraine.

The Serbian Orthodox Church is one of the most influential regional religious actors in the Balkans. 

While the 1922 tomos of autocephaly issued by the Ecumenical Patriarch gives the Serbian Orthodox Church a territorial canonical jurisdiction stretching from Slovenia in the north to Macedonia’s south, in reality, it faces many hurdles which prevent it from having equal influence across the Balkans.

Ever since 1967, when the Macedonian Orthodox Church unilaterally seceded from the Serbian Church, the role of the Serbian Church has diminished in Macedonian society. The vast majority of Macedonian Orthodox believers are adherents to the unrecognised Macedonian Orthodox Church - Ohrid Archbishopric.

For decades the Macedonian Church has been locked in negotiations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, seeking autocephaly and recognition by the rest of Orthodoxy. 

These negotiations culminated in 2002 with the Nis accords, which stipulated broad autonomy for the Macedonian Orthodox Church, but not full independence. 

As a result of public and political pressure, the Macedonian church dropped the autonomy offer and continued to employ other strategies to gain recognition, the most recent being rapprochement with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and direct communication with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.   

After the failed Nis agreement, the Serbian Orthodox Church was still eager to re-engage with believers in the territory of Macedonia. It attempted to do that by establishing its own branch, (the Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric) but with local, Macedonian clergy. 

However, the Macedonian authorities have not allowed this church to be registered in the country which has further seen its profile deteriorate in Macedonia.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has a much harsher policy towards the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. 

Formed in 1993, the Montenegrin Church claims to be a successor of the autocephalous Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which functioned as such until 1920. Serbia’s Patriarch Irinej, in the same letter sent to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in August 2018, discredits the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, calling it a sect which is registered in a police station as an NGO. 

The leverage of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro’s political life is far more tangible than in Macedonia because around 70 percent of Montenegrin Orthodox believers adhere to the Serbian Orthodox Church while the rest belong to the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. 

Moreover, it was only in 2006 when, by referendum, Montenegrins decided to separate from Serbia to restore their independence as a separate country. For the ethnic Serbs who make up about a third of Montenegro’s total population, this remains a divisive issue.   

Unlike its Macedonian counterpart, the Montenegrin Church is still facing a number of challenges which prohibit its normal functioning, such as the lack of church infrastructure.  This is one of the most significant points of contest with the Serbian Orthodox Church. 

The Montenegrin Church claims that church property in Montenegro built before 1918, the year when Montenegro united with Serbia, should be returned to the Montenegrin state something that the Serbian Orthodox Church vigorously opposes. The Montenegrin state is directly involved in the legal dispute, of which it is supposed to be the arbitrator. 

The issue receives high political attention, with several violent incidents over the years sparked by the property rivalries between the two churches. However, among the political elite in Montenegro, the Serbian Orthodox Church is not seen in the most favourable light due to the number of questionable statements made by high-ranking church officials. 

Just this year, on a visit to Montenegro in October 2018, the Serbian Patriarch Irinej asserted that the Serbs and the Montenegrins are one nation although divided. A few months earlier, in July 2018, he compared the treatment of the Serbs in Montenegro with that of the Serb community in Croatia at the time of the independent State of Croatia, a World War II fascist-allied state responsible for the deaths of many Serbs, Jews and Roma.

The victory of Ukraine’s President Poroshenko in bringing home a tomos of autocephaly has refreshed the call for the recognition and independence of the churches in Macedonia and Montenegro. 

While both have their own arguments as to why they deserve autocephaly, they each face the same source of opposition, the Serbian Orthodox Church. 

The unresolved and open canonical issue in the case of Macedonia, the routine clashes with the Montenegrin authorities and its fragile and uncertain position in Kosovo’s society prevents the Serbian Orthodox Church from consolidating its position in the Balkans.

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