BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — A Serbian government official on Wednesday branded Montenegro a “criminal” state and urged a “fierce” response over the neighboring country’s plans to introduce a new church law that has strained relations between the two former Balkan allies.

The Montenegrin draft church law calls for all religious communities in the country to provide proof that they owned their property before 1918, when the small Adriatic state lost its independence and became part of the Serb-dominated Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. If they don’t, the property becomes state owned.

The Serbian Orthodox Church and Serbian officials reacted with fury, saying Montenegro’s government wants to take over by force hundreds of Serb churches and monasteries on its territory. Montenegro, which split from much larger Serbia in 2006, denies the claims, saying it wanted to regulate property and financial matters carried out by different religious groups.

Serbian government minister Nenad Popovic said Wednesday the draft law is a “hostile act” against Serbs, the Serbian state and the Serbian church.

“In case this bill passes in the Montenegrin parliament, Serbia will certainly react in the strongest possible way,” Popovic told the pro-government Pink TV.

Popovic, who is known for his staunchly pro-Russian views, has not specified what kind of reaction Serbia could take against NATO-member Montenegro. But he has said in the past those could include cutting off diplomatic and other ties with its historical ally.


He also unleashed his fury against Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who led his small state to independence from Serbia and toward the West despite strong opposition from Moscow.

“He has to fulfill the tasks put forward by his Western mentors,” Popovic said.

Djukanovic said Wednesday he won’t react to “the provocations” from Serbia, adding that Montenegro “will defend its interests without compromise” regarding the church law.