The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church was inaugurated in Montenegro’s old capital Sunday by a military helicopter. This followed clashes between police officers and protesters opposing the continued presence of Serbs in the small Balkan nation.

According to hospital officials, at least 60 people were hurt in clashes between police and demonstrators in Cetinje. They hurled rocks at police and fired shots into the air. At least 15 people were taken into police custody.

Opponents of the Serbian church in Montenegro that declared independence from Serbia in 2006 were angered by Sunday’s ceremony. Pro-independence Montenegrins advocate for an Orthodox Christian church to be recognized and separate from the Serbian.

After evading the roadblockades put up by demonstrators, Metropolitan Joanikije, the new head for the Serbian church of Montenegro, arrived in Cetinje in a helicopter with the Serbian patriarch Porfirije. Television footage showed priests being led to the Cetinje monastery, protected by a bulletproof blanket and armed police.

Later, Patriarch Porfirije wrote that he was pleased that the ceremony was held but that he was also “horrified” by the fact that someone was trying to stop the ceremony “with an sniper rifle.” This claim was not immediately verified.

To prevent state and church dignitaries and clergy from attending the inauguration, demonstrators set up barriers made of tires, trash bins and large rocks. Many protestors spent the night singing slogans such as “This Is Not Serbia!” or “This Is Montenegro!” amid reports that police were sending reinforcements in an attempt to break the blockade. One blockade was set on fire by tires.

Montenegrins are still deeply divided about their country’s ties to Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox church, the dominant religious institution in the nation. About 30% of Montenegro’s 620,000 inhabitants consider themselves to be Serbs.

After the ceremony, Metropolitan Joanikije stated that “the divisions were artificially created” and that he had done everything possible to remove them. However, it will take time.

As a stark demonstration of the political divide in Montenegro President Milo Djukanovic visited Cetinje, while Zdravko Krivokapic, the current pro-Serb Prime Minster, went to Podgorica for the Serbian patriarch to be received.

Krivokapic called the protests “an attempted terrorist act”, but Djukanovic stated that the protesters in Cetinje were protecting national interests against an alleged attempt by larger Serbia to overthrow Montenegro’s church.

Djukanovic said that the Montenegrin government is “ruthlessly serving the imperial interests (Serbia)” and that the Serbian Orthodox church, which is a striking fistful of Serbian nationalism, is against Montenegro.

The country was liberated from Serbia by Montenegro’s former authorities. Russia refused to allow Montenegro to join NATO in 2017. Montenegro is also seeking to join the European Union.

Aleksandar Vucic (Serbia) President, who was accused by Montenegro’s opposition of interfering in the country’s internal affairs with Russia, congratulated Joanikije for his inauguration, and praised the government, saying that the ceremony went ahead despite clashes.

Vucic stated in Belgrade that Cetinje was a place where 90% of the population is against the Serbian Orthodox church, and where hatred towards all people is present.” “This hate is not real, it is an instigated hatred by some politicians in Montenegro. So it was very logical to expect what occurred there.”

The U.S. government called on all parties to “immediately de-escalate this situation.”

The U.S Embassy stated that religious freedom and freedom of expression must be respected.

Joanikije’s predecessor in Montenegro as church leader, Amfilohije died in October from COVID-19.