God invoked by rivals in Montenegro: Nationalists chanting old marching song summon unfrocked bishop to lead break from Serbian Orthodox church

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The Independent Online
PLUCKING a jewel-encrusted gold mitre from a blue plastic bag and placing it firmly on his head, an elderly unfrocked clergyman yesterday proclaimed an independent church in the tiny Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, to the cheers of thousands of supporters in the former royal capital of Cetinje.

As young toughs fired bullets into the air and waved the scarlet and white flags of the old Montenegrin army, the crowd burst into an old marching song, chanting: 'Oh you bright May dawn, our Mother Montenegro, we are the sons of your rocks.'

The summons by Montengrin nationalists to Antonija Abramovic, an emigre Orthodox cleric who has spent the last 30 years in Canada, to lead a revived independent church is a challenge of the first order to the Serbian Orthodox Church, which counts Montenegro as part of its domain. Only 50 yards from the jubilant gun-toting crowd in Cetinje's main square, Bishop Amfilohija, the official Serbian church leader of Montenegro, was hosting the Synod of the Serbian Orthodox church in a medieval monastery.

Helicopters whirled low over the small town and heavily armed special units of the Montenegrin police ringed the monastery to prevent an angry mob fired up on plum brandy from attacking the Synod.

The night before the rival church gatherings, police virtually sealed off Cetinje to keep out supporters of either faction. The local authorities, close allies of President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, fear the revival of an independent church will boost secessionist feelings among the 600,000 Montenegrins, ethnic Slavs who lived in an independent monarchy until union with Serb-dominated Yugoslavia in 1918.

Montenegrin television devoted weekend news programmes to denouncing Mr Abramovic as a fraud. The piece de resistance was a faxed message from the Orthodox Church dignitaries in North America stripping Mr Abramovic of holy orders.

Ensconced in a cottage on the hillside above Cetinje, wearing bishop's robes and surrounded by muscular henchmen, the would-be head of the Montenegrin church said he was not fazed by the faxed unfrocking. 'I could not care less if we are not recognised,' he said. 'The Russian Church was not recognised for centuries.' He advised the Serbian clergy led by Bishop Amfilohija to 'buzz off' out of Montenegro and said he will seek control of the church's property.

In spite of the televised revelation about the fax, most Cetinjans rooted firmly for Mr Abramovic and the break-away church. The Serbian bishop, Amfilohija, is hated as Belgrade's man in a town where loyalty to the pre-1918 independent Montenegrin state remains strong.

Lurid stories circulate about his alleged wickedness. 'War criminal', 'Satan' and 'scum' were among the more polite comments of shopkeepers, many of whom carried portraits of Mr Abramovic in their windows. 'Amfilohija had destroyed 120 tombs of Montenegrin patriots in the middle of the night and smeared his own faeces over them,' said Ilija Martinovic.

'People will not have their children baptised while that man is the bishop,' said one man. 'I have been waiting years for the independent church to be proclaimed - I have three children born since Amfilohija came.' A heinous crime in the eyes of many was a visit to the bishop paid two years ago by Zeljko Raznjatovic - 'Arkan', a Serbian paramilitary chief accused of massacring Croatian and Muslim civilians. 'The bishop blessed a war criminal,' whispered Zlatko, a shop-keeper.

From his medieval monastery, Bishop Amfilohija denounced the people of Cetinje as liars, Communists and atheists. 'Do I look like a war criminal?' he asked. 'These people who want to proclaim their own independent church cannot even say the Our Father. Up until yesterday they were all members of the Communist Party.'

Bishop Amfilohija admitted that Arkan had paid him a visit but said it was uninvited. As for defecating over the tombs of Montenegrin soldiers, he declined to answer.

The dispute looks set to worsen between the two bishops - a dangerous affair in a country of hot- headed men who always carry guns. In Cetinje, Montenegrins blame union with Mr Milosevic's Serbia for their empty shops and deserted tourist hotels. For a growing number, the creation of an independent Montenegrin church is the first step towards independence from rump Yugoslavia. 'There will be an ugly war in Montenegro, even bloodier than the one in Bosnia,' predicted Petar Lekovic. 'The Serbs will not let us go just like that.'