Serbia tries to rid itself of a turbulent priest: Milosevic fears rebellion led by a 74-year-old Montenegrin

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The Independent Online
YUGOSLAV state television calls him a homosexual and an alcoholic. One news programme at the weekend said he is notorious for making assaults on small boys and sailors. A second programme accused him of working for years in the old secret police outfit of the late President Tito.

For the 74-year-old Montenegrin priest, Antonije Abramovic, it has been a tough week. Condemned at the annual synod of Serbia's Orthodox bishops, formally stripped of priest's orders by the church in America, where he lived for 30 years, he is now threatened with jail by the public prosecutor of the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro. Even Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic has stepped into the fray to denounce him on television as an unfrocked priest whose activities are 'a scandal'.

The frail old man with watery blue eyes caused a furore last week when he tottered on to an open-air wooden stage in the former Montenegrin royal seat of Cetinje. Before a crowd of several thousand supporters, he revived an ancient Montenegrin custom: accepting the title of Bishop of Montenegro by popular acclamation.

Not a matter worth worrying about when a war is raging in neighbouring Bosnia, one might think. But not so. Religion is a serious political business in the Balkans, where churches are the stuff on which nation states are built. When Father Abramovic mocked the authority of the official Serbian Bishop of Montenegro, President Milosevic smelt the whiff of a challenge to the very survival of rump Yugoslavia, now comprising only Montenegro and Serbia.

Far less anti-Serbian than the 2 million Muslim Albanians in Yugoslavia's southern province of Kosovo, the half-awakened nationalists among the 600,000 Orthodox Montenegrins still threaten to split in two what is left of Yugoslavia. Nowhere is the festering resentment at Belgrade's heavy hand stronger than in Cetinje, where the scarlet and white flags of the pre-1918 independent Montenegrin monarchy flutter from the rooftops, and pictures of the last Montenegrin king, Nicholas II, hang proudly on the walls of the town cafes.

The growing independence movement in Montenegro feeds on more than memories. People blame union with Serbia for the punishing international sanctions that have emptied shops and taken away jobs. Young Montenegrin men admit that they took part in the Yugoslav army siege of the Croatian port of Dubrovnik in 1991, angrily insisting they were manipulated by the Milosevic regime into fighting a war for greater Serbia, which brought nothing but ruin to Montenegro.

Serbia's man of the cloth in Montenegro, the Bishop of Amfilohija, has poured petrol on the flames with his high- handed ways. A passionate believer in greater Serbia and a public friend of some of Serbia's most unsavoury paramilitary chiefs, the bishop lives under virtual siege in his medieval monastery-cum-castle, protected from his jeering parishioners by heavily-armed police. The locals charge him with the bizarre crime of smearing his own excrement on the tombs of Montenegrin soldiers - their way of saying they don't like him. The combative cleric lashes his flock as a collection of communists, atheists and agents of the Pope.

Ask Serbs why they are so hot under the collar about the claim of a harmless-looking, twinkly-eyed old man to be Bishop of Montenegro and most answer: 'Macedonia.' Once as much part of Yugoslavia as Montenegro is today, the setting-up of an independent Orthodox church that rejected Belgrade rule in the 1960s boosted nationalist feelings, which triumphed when the republic cut ties with Yugoslavia last year.

Many Serbs suspect that Father Abramovic will lead Montenegro up the same path. They point to the leading role pro-independence politicians took in organising his public proclamation as bishop.

As yet, Mr Milosevic's ire looks over the top. Most Montenegrins still see themselves ethnically as almost-Serbs who belong in Yugoslavia and, by implication, to the Serbian church. In a hotel lobby in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, television scenes of Father Abramovic's election evoked more amusement than passion among watchers.

But the longer Montenegro suffers for Serbia's greedy territorial claims in Bosnia and Croatia, the stronger the tide will flow in the direction of Montenegro's secession. By persecuting Father Abramovic, the Serbs are merely inflaming tensions, repeating the error made long ago in Croatia and Slovenia, and showing that perhaps, like the Bourbons, the Serbs forget nothing in history but learn nothing from it either.

(Photograph omitted)