Religious communities in Montenegro are still wary of vaccination. Muslim rulers are the exception.
PODGORICA – Struck in quick succession a year ago by the deaths of COVID-19 of its two highest priests, the dominant church in Montenegro remains stubbornly wary of vaccines.
The vaccination rate is low and the death rate high in this country of about 620,000 people, more than two-thirds of whom are Orthodox.
But even as tighter anti-pandemic restrictions came into effect this month, which could severely affect attendance at churches and mosques across the country, the local branch of the Serbian Orthodox Church has avoided call on the faithful to be vaccinated.
“We have to be careful,” said Joanikije II, the Metropolitan of the Serbian Church for Montenegro and the Littoral, before vaccination checks became compulsory on 1 December. [other] interest, or who knows what, wants to be involved at every opportunity. “
Asked to clarify, the metropolis of Montenegro and the Littoral declined to comment on its attitude towards vaccination.
Doctors and scientists around the world agree that mass vaccination is the best way to curb the spread of COVID-19 and limit hospitalizations and deaths.
Joanikije was inducted in September, 10 months after the death of his predecessor, Metropolitan Amfilohije, following a coronavirus infection he allegedly contracted during the funeral of his superior, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej, also who died of COVID -19.
The Serbian Orthodox Church was heavily criticized at the time for holding religious services without masks or other precautions, and including high-risk rites like communion with a shared spoon.
Joanikije tested positive for the coronavirus in November 2020 and was himself vaccinated in May.
But the herd, in a region popular for vaccine skepticism and adoption of COVID-19 conspiracy theories, seems to have its own ideas.
Only 42% of Montenegrins have been fully vaccinated since the deployment began in early May, and the official death toll per 100,000 population (374) is the fourth in the world, behind Peru, Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Listen to the science”
In fact, the leaders of only one of Montenegro’s three major religions are publicly adopting vaccination to stem the current health crisis.
“Our call is always that people listen to the voice of science, and [that is to] get vaccinated, âsaid Reis Rifat Fejzic, head of the Islamic Community of Montenegro, an independent religious organization with a century-old history, serving the Balkans of RFE / RL.
His organization urged observant Muslims to get vaccinated as soon as the vaccine becomes available, even if it arrived during Ramadan, the holiest and most sober month on the Islamic calendar.
“I think a good part of the population will listen to the call of religious leaders to be vaccinated,” Fejzic said.
There are no local figures available on vaccination rates by denomination.
But the Catholic Church, which represents Montenegro’s third religious community behind Orthodoxy (72%) and Islam (19%) with around 3%, also avoided endorsing the shootings. Local Catholic leadership has said that “believers can access vaccinations with the freedom of conscience,” mirroring language on the subject from the Vatican.
Last week, two Catholic dioceses told RFE / RL’s Balkan service that even though they had complied with epidemiological measures before this month’s requirement that worshipers present a national digital COVID certificate, they will not become executors. .
Catholic priests would not require their worshipers to present “documents or proof of health,” they said. They will respect “the regulations useful to fight against the coronavirus”, they added.
âWe are grateful to God because no Catholic church in Montenegro has been a hotbed of infection or spread of the coronavirus,â the dioceses said.
Top down denial
Montenegro has the dubious status of the only European country whose prime minister, former engineering professor Zdravko Krivokapic, has still not been vaccinated. A little over a year ago, after Krivokapic was filmed taking Communion with an ordinary spoon, he stated that “if you have faith … you will not be infected with Communion” .
A month ago, in the midst of a near-record spike in daily infections, Krivokapic suggested he had high levels of antibodies and reiterated that he would only get the vaccine if his doctor recommended it.
Human Rights Action, an NGO from Podgorica, said after an Orthodox enthronement at the Djurjevi Stupovi monastery in late September that âthe behavior of all state officials present, who ignored prescribed legal measures, was a joint protest against the rule of law and common sense. “
With this kind of implicit message from above in the government, religious authorities could play an inordinate role in determining whether reluctant Montenegrins are being shot.
A November survey by local pollster Defacto Agency found that religious communities enjoy the highest level of trust among Montenegrins (around 60%), followed by the military and police. Public confidence in the government was only 41 percent.
Bozena Jelusic, member of the parliamentary committee on education and science, questions the approaches of some religious leaders in the current health crisis. “The key question is whether religious organizations can really have a clear conscience at this time, when deciding between life and death, because much of the power to defeat the pandemic lies with their authority,” said Jelusic to RFE / RL.
“It’s a big challenge for religious institutions because they are currently deciding whether we want to get sick en masse or get vaccinated en masse,” Jelusic said.
Jelusic, a professor of literature and media education, said the country’s major religious communities have adopted “uneven approaches” to immunization that reflect their respective attitudes towards science. “Some religious leaders believe that, unlike religion, science does not necessarily lead people to moral action,” she said.
Montenegrin authorities on December 1 expanded a requirement for people to present digital national COVID certificates for entry to restaurants, cultural and sporting events, and religious venues.
The certificate shows the cardholder is fully vaccinated, has recovered from COVID-19 within the previous 180 days, or has tested negative for the virus.
Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Lela Scepanovic from RFE / RL’s Balkan Service in Podgorica