In Cetinje, Montenegro, riot police fired tear gas on protesters and dismantled barricades that had been erected in a failed attempt to curb the inauguration of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Cetinje health officials said more than 60 people had been injured, including 30 police officers. At least 15 people were arrested at the scene.
Police spokesman Dragan Gorovic told reporters that protesters had thrown rocks, fireworks and other objects at police officers, leading to the use of tear gas by riot police officers.
Montenegrin state TV RTCG showed footage of Serbian Patriarch Porfirie and Bishop Joanikije arriving at the Cetinje monastery by helicopter. Both religious leaders were surrounded by heavily armed riot police, with the officers holding up bulletproof vests to protect the men.
Joanikije was inaugurated as the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church later that day.
The controversy is tied to an ongoing national dispute over Montenegrin independence. The country declared independence from Serbia in 2006; in the deciding referendum, barely 55 percent of voters backed the declaration that sever the nearly century-long union.
In the years since, pro-independence Montenegrins have called for the formation of a new Orthodox Christian Church separate from the Serbian organisation. For many, the planned inauguration of Bishop Joanikije was seen as evidence of creeping Serbian influence, and an attempt by the country to pull Montenegro into the so-called “Serb world.”
The site of the incident over the weekend, Cetinje, is the former capital of Montenegro.
On Sunday, matters became volatile as hundreds of protesters gathered around the Cetinje monastery in a bid to block the official inauguration of Joanikije as head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro.
Riot police were called to control the situation as protesters established barricades made from tires and trash bins, and threw fireworks, rocks and bottles at police as part of the confrontation. According to reporters, the group chanted “This is not Serbia!” and “This is Montenegro!”
In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic congratulated Joanikije on his inauguration. He also praised the Montenegrin government for its success in handling the event. Vucic told reporters in Belgrade that Serbia and Montenegro have “only the closest and best relations.”
Vucic, meanwhile, has been accused of interference in Montenegro’s domestic affairs since the two countries separated. He is a former information minister in the government of deposed Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, the latter leading the country into the Balkan wars and overseeing a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the region.
The population of Montenegro remains divided over the country’s connection to Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church. Close to one third of the population identifies as Serbian, and three decades of rule by President Milo Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) has only exacerbated divisions in the country.