Peter Anderson reports from the Orthodox world.

Longstanding reporter of the news from the Eastern Church, Peter Anderson shares our dream or a unified Christianity. His love for Orthodoxy has driven him to this personal mission to share the news of East with the world through his email list. The Urbi et Orbi Foundation is proud to share his efforts and his insights with you.

Two days of negotiations between the experts of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the experts of the government of Montenegro ended today (July 21) without a resolution being reached on the very controversial law on religion. After the end of the negotiations, the Montenegro government issued a press release with a statement from Prime Minister Duško Marković describing what occurred at the negotiations. (official English version). The press release quotes the Prime Minister as follows:

During the second round of expert talks, held yesterday and today, we accepted:
Firstly – To transfer the procedure of determining land registry entries from the administrative procedure to the regular court procedure where the burden of proving ownership falls on the state and not the church. In this regard, we proposed a completely new Article 63 of the Law, thus accepting the proposals of the Church.
Secondly – That the Serbian Orthodox Church continues to use all church and monastery facilities, property and other real estate owned by the state or that is determined as state, religious and cultural property in court proceedings. In that sense, we have proposed a completely new Article 64 of the Law, and clearly excluded the possibility that religious facilities can be used by any religious community except the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral the other dioceses of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro.
Thirdly – To adopt these changes the day after tomorrow at the Cabinet session and to submit them to the Parliament for a declaration in an urgent procedure by the end of this month.
Simplified – this would mean that the shrines were no longer attacked as the Church says, i.e. that they would be completely and permanently protected by the amendments to the Law! In a word – that there is no more talk about their alleged endangerment, as the Government was blamed for.

The Prime Minister continued: “The only request of the Government was the registration of all churches and religious communities, including the Serbian Orthodox Church and its dioceses, according to the letter of the law. The registration, which was also an obligation under the previous law. The registration, as all civilized and democratic societies are regulating it. Unfortunately, the church refused it.” The statement then describes prior efforts by the government to be reasonable in its relations to the Church and gives examples where the government contends that the Church seeks to function outside of the legal system.

Today, the Bishops’ Council of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro issued its own statement concerning the negotiations. This statement should be read in its entirety. However, it does include the following statement: “We note with regret that the latest proposal of the Government placed an ultimatum before the Church in the form of mandatory registration of the Metropolitanate and Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, despite the fact that they have existed as church institutions in Montenegro for eight centuries.” With respect to the government’s proposal to amend Articles 63 and 64, the Church states: “We have considered the Government’s proposal for potential amendments to Articles 63 and 64 of the Law and conclude that they are essentially meaningless with the Government’s insistence on the survival of Article 62 of the Law, which, conditionally, declares church property state property, although it has never been in Montenegrin history.” The Council also asserts: “ Based on all the above, it is clear that the Government, unlike the Church, did not have sincere intentions to reach a mutually acceptable and sustainable solution through dialogue, but the call for dialogue obviously served for new blackmail of the Church and current political marketing, in which the Church cannot and does not want to participate.”

In my opinion the concessions made by the government in these negotiations are a great victory for the Church. With respect to the pre-1918 church property, the government’s proposal now provides that the government has the burden of proof in court proceedings that the property was in fact previously government property. Furthermore, registration of a church with the government seems to be a very common requirement in many countries. It certainly appears that the government is seeking to remove the controversy concerning the new law as a major issue in the forthcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for August 30. This issue has been the prime issue of the pro-Serbian political parties in their campaign against the government. In view of the current stance of the Church, it remains an issue. Although the Church has made it clear that it will not be involved in the political issues relating to the August 30 election, it made on July 14 a very strong statement that “the Church calls on all Montenegrin citizens to go to the polls for deputies in the National Assembly, and to elect and vote for those who will not pass and confirm illegal and anti-church laws on their behalf.”

The trial of Bishop Joanikije and eight priests in Montenegro for violations of the anti-Covid restrictions in Nikšić on May 12 has been postponed again due to the pandemic in Montenegro. It is now set for September 4 – after the August 30 election. The Church has lost its legal challenge to Ministry of Sustainable Development and Tourism with respect to the destruction by the government of a church residence near Ulcinj that was in the early stages of construction. The basis for the destruction was the failure of the Church to obtain a building permit and to follow a prior order by a government inspector to stop construction.

With respect to Hagia Sophia, every day there are new protests by Orthodox churches and organizations concerning the conversion of this church, so important in Christian history, into a mosque. On July 14, Serbian Patriarch Irinej made an appeal to Turkey. (English). On July 21, the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Patriarchate issued an appeal for the preservation of Hagia Sophia as a museum, while expressing its respect for the Turkish state institutions. Patriarch John X of Antioch has written a letter to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew expressing his dismay at the decision by Turkey and stating: “We stand by you, dear Brother, joining our prayers for your Holy Church and this wounded East. We support every effort of yours to enhance your presence in your own land, the land of your ancestors, the Church of Constantinople, the new Rome to which we are all bonded by brotherhood and unity of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” In a statement issued on July 17, the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate issued “profound regret,” while noting that sadly the ability of the Orthodox world to respond to Turkey’s decision on Hagia Sophia has been weakened by the divisions caused by the uncanonical actions in Ukraine. The Orthodox Church of Cyprus has also issued a statement.

On July 20, the official website of President of Greece Katerina Sakellaropoulou posted the following statement concerning a telephone conversation that the Greek President had with Pope Francis:

The President of the Republic contacted Pope Francis today, on the occasion of the decision of the Turkish leadership to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Ms. Sakellaropoulou stressed that this decision deeply hurts those who consider this top symbol of Christianity to belong to humanity and the world cultural heritage and diverts Turkey from the values ​​of the secular state and the principles of tolerance and pluralism.
This action, she stressed, is not an internal matter of Turkey but a broader issue that must be explicitly and unequivocally condemned by the international community. The President thanked the Pope for his statements of support and asked him, in turn, to use all his influence to sensitize the international public, in order for the Turkish leadership to reverse its decision and restore Hagia Sophia in the status of a protected monument.
For his part, the head of the Roman Catholic Church agreed with the remarks of Mrs. Sakellaropoulou, acknowledged the political motives of Mr. Erdogan’s decision and promised to continue his efforts, in the context of his role, to reverse this decision. The Pope also praised our country’s efforts in receiving refugees and immigrants, as he had the opportunity to see during his visit to Lesvos in 2016.
The President of the Republic reiterated the invitation to Pope Francis to visit our country in 2021, a year in which the 200th anniversary of the Greek revolution will be celebrated. The Pope accepted the invitation, hoping that the conditions would allow the trip to take place. (Google translation of Greek) See also (English article)

The spokesperson of the Turkish president has stated that Pope Francis has been invited to attend the official opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque on July 24!!

Peter Anderson, Seattle USA