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Montenegro police break up protests against priest detention

May 13, 2020 GMT
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In this photo taken Tuesday, May 12, 2020, people wait in a queue in front of the Christian Orthodox monastery of Ostrog, 30 kilometers northwest of the Montenegrin capital Podgorica. Serbia has strongly protested the detention of eight Serbian Orthodox Church priests in Montenegro after thousands of people attended a religious procession despite a ban on gatherings because of the new coronavirus. Montenegrin prosecutors say that the priests are facing charges of violating health regulations during the virus outbreak by organizing the procession on Tuesday in the western town of Niksic. (AP Photo/Risto Bozovic)
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In this photo taken Tuesday, May 12, 2020, people wait in a queue in front of the Christian Orthodox monastery of Ostrog, 30 kilometers northwest of the Montenegrin capital Podgorica. Serbia has strongly protested the detention of eight Serbian Orthodox Church priests in Montenegro after thousands of people attended a religious procession despite a ban on gatherings because of the new coronavirus. Montenegrin prosecutors say that the priests are facing charges of violating health regulations during the virus outbreak by organizing the procession on Tuesday in the western town of Niksic. (AP Photo/Risto Bozovic)

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegrin police used tear gas to disperse protests demanding the release of eight Serbian Orthodox Church priests who were detained for organizing a religious procession despite a ban on gatherings because of the coronavirus.

The incidents late Wednesday in the western towns of Niksic and Pljevlja came a day after thousands attended the procession in Niksic without wearing face masks or keeping distance.

Local media say a number of people have been detained.

Large gatherings are still banned in Montenegro as part of efforts to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. The detained priests are facing charges of violating health regulations during the virus outbreak by organizing the procession.

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Earlier on Wednesday, angry supporters of the Serbian Orthodox Church blocked a regional road in northern Montenegro in protest.

The detentions have heightened tensions between the small NATO member state and Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church which earlier this year led weeks of protests against a religious law that it says would strip the church of its property. Montenegrin officials have repeatedly denied the claims.

Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, and Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Irinej said in a joint statement on Wednesday that they hope the arrests won’t spark any “unwanted unrest or clashes.”

Montenegro, a country of 620,000 people, split from much larger Serbia in a referendum in 2006. Serbian nationalists both in Serbia and Montenegro have never fully recognized the separation of what they claim is a historic Serbian territory.