PODGORICA (Reuters) - Montenegro's parliament approved on Friday a law on religious communities despite street protests and a last-minute attempt in the chamber by deputies of the pro-Serb opposition to prevent the vote going ahead.
Under the law, religious communities in the tiny Adriatic state would need to prove property ownership from before 1918, when predominantly Orthodox Christian Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the predecessor of the now-defunct Yugoslavia.
The pro-Serb Democratic Front (DF) and other critics of the legislation say it is an attempt to promote the small Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which is not recognised by other major churches, at the expense of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the dominant church in the country of 620,000 people.
They also accuse Montenegro's pro-Western president, Milo Djukanovic, and his ruling Democratic Party of Socialists of corruption, ties to organised crime and seeking to push the country further from Serbia, its much bigger neighbour.
The DF deputies brawled with their opponents just before the vote, which took place in the early hours of Friday after a lengthy late-night debate.
Police initially detained all 18 DF deputies but later released 15. Among the three who remained in detention pending charges was DF leader Andrija Mandic.
"We have said we are ready to die for our church," Mandic told reporters after the fracas.
Hundreds of opposition supporters and clergy had taken to the streets of Podgorica on Thursday to rally against the law. Roads in the north of the country were also blocked for hours.
The Serbian Orthodox Church has around 12 million followers, mainly in Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro. It owns 66 monasteries in Montenegro, most of them dating back to the Middle Ages, as well as dozens of churches and other real estate.
Patriarch Irinej, head of the church, asked Montenegrin authorities to end what he called their "brutal terror".
"His Holiness .. demands an immediate release ... of political representatives of the Serbian Orthodox people in Montenegro," it said.
Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic said Belgrade would seek to ease tensions through diplomatic means.
"We will help our people (in Montenegro), but we will not destroy bridges with our neighbours," Vucic said.
The Church suspects the Montenegrin state of planning to seize its assets, something the government denies. Djukanovic has accused the Church of promoting pro-Serbian policies with the aim of undermining Montenegrin statehood.
Montenegro peacefully split from its former federal partner in 2006. It is now a member of NATO and, like Serbia, a candidate for European Union membership.
(Reporting by Stevo Vasiljevic in Podgorica; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Gareth Jones)