Scores held in Montenegro amid calls for release of priests who defied lockdown

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Montenegrin police said they have detained around 60 people following clashes at protests demanding the release of eight Serbian Orthodox Church priests jailed for leading a religious procession despite a ban on gatherings related to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Twenty-six officers were injured during the unrest late on Wednesday in the towns of Niksic and Pljevlja, police said.

One of the injured policemen has been taken to hospital, the statement said.

Police insisted they intervened with pepper spray and dispersed the protesters into smaller groups after they threw rocks, bottles and other objects and blocked traffic.

Virus Outbreak Montenegro
People wait in a queue in front of the Christian Orthodox monastery of Ostrog (Risto Bozovic/AP)

An axe and a knife were found during a search in Niksic and police property was damaged, while protesters in Pljevlja stoned the police station in the town, the statement also said.

Some of the people were detained in other towns where they tried to organise gatherings, including the capital, Podgorica.

The protests followed the arrest of the Serbian Orthodox Church priests who had led a procession Tuesday that a few thousand people attended without wearing face masks or keeping a safe distance between one another.

The incidents add to tensions between the government and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro which earlier this year organised months-long protests against a religious law they say would strip the church of its property.

Montenegrin authorities have denied this would happen.

A country of 620,000 people, Montenegro split from much larger Serbia in a referendum in 2006.

Montenegro Church
A believer kisses the remains of St Basil in the Christian Orthodox monastery of Ostrog (Risto Bozovic/AP)

In Serbia, populist President Aleksandar Vucic said on Thursday that “we fail to comprehend” why Bishop Joanikije and other priests remain in detention.

He added that Serbia cannot interfere in any way but “will remain by our people and the church as much as we can”.

Large gatherings are still banned in Montenegro as part of efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus.

The detained priests are facing charges of violating health regulations during the virus outbreak by organising the procession.

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