Montenegro and Serbia feud over flag-burning protest

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Montenegro and Serbia summoned diplomats of each others’ countries on Friday after sports fans in Belgrade torched Montenegro’s flag in protest at a new law that could target Serbian Orthodox Church assets.

After a basketball match between Serbia’s Red Star and Germany’s Bayern, thousands of fans marched in Belgrade on Thursday night and stopped in front of the Montenegro embassy, setting off fireworks that burned the flag outside.

Montenegro’s Foreign Ministry said Serbia’s ambassador had been summoned after authorities in Belgrade failed to stop the “absolutely unacceptable” attack on its embassy.

Serbia’s Foreign Ministry condemned the burning of the flag but also summoned a Montenegrin diplomat, saying it would not comment on statements from Montenegro which try to “falsely shift the responsibility for the crisis to Serbia”.

Under a law passed last week by Montenegro’s parliament, religious communities must prove property ownership from before 1918, when predominantly Orthodox Christian Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the predecessor of the now-defunct Yugoslavia.

Pro-Serb politicians and other critics of the legislation say it is an attempt to promote the small Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which is not recognized by other major churches, at the expense of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the dominant church in the country of 620,000 people.

Montenegro’s long-serving and pro-Western leader, Milo Djukanovic, accuses the Serbian Orthodox Church of promoting pro-Serbian policies to undermine Montenegro, a NATO member and European Union membership candidate, which split from Serbia in 2006.

Serbia also wants to join the EU, but it refuses to join the transatlantic NATO alliance and has pursued ties with Russia and China. Most Montenegrins and Serbs share language and ethnic origins and many Serbians have Montenegrin roots and families there.

Reporting by Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Andrew Cawthorne