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Thousands mourn death of Montenegro bishop amid virus fears

Thousands of people on Saturday poured into the streets in Montenegro despite soaring coronavirus infections to mourn the death of the top Serbian Orthodox Church bishop in the country.

Huge crowds gathered around the main church in the capital, Podgorica, where the body of Bishop Amfilohije was brought in an open casket ahead of the funeral on Sunday. The mourners lined up to pass by the coffin and pay respects.

The 82-year old Bishop Amfilohije died on Friday in a hospital after contracting the coronavirus weeks ago. Yet, the crowds outside the church did not keep anti-virus distance and not all were wearing face masks.

Believers carry coffin of Bishop Amfilohije, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, in Podgorica, Montenegro, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. The church said the 82-year-old died Friday from pneumonia caused by COVID-19. Amfilohije, known for his staunch anti-Western and pro-Russian political views, played a key role in leading the anti-government protests and putting together an opposition coalition that is currently trying to form the country's new government. (AP PhotoRisto Bozovic)

Along with much of the Balkans and central and eastern Europe, Montenegro has seen a surge in infections. Health authorities have warned mourners to respect anti-virus rules.

Bishop Amfilohije was highly popular among pro-Serb Montenegrins who have been seeking closer ties with neighboring Serbia following Montenegro's split from a joint state in 2006. The Serbian Orthodox Church remains the main church in the country.

The bishop played a key role in a movement that helped defeat in the August election a long-ruling pro-Western government. The church in Montenegro also has led months of protests this year against a religious property law, arguing that the government wants to take away its property, which officials have denied.

Believers carry coffin of Bishop Amfilohije, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, in Podgorica, Montenegro, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. The church said the 82-year-old died Friday from pneumonia caused by COVID-19. Amfilohije, known for his staunch anti-Western and pro-Russian political views, played a key role in leading the anti-government protests and putting together an opposition coalition that is currently trying to form the country's new government. (AP PhotoRisto Bozovic)

Montenegro's outgoing leadership led the country to independence from Serbia and into NATO in 2017, defying Russia. Bishop Amfilohije and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro were against independence from Serbia, Moscow's main Balkan ally.

Believers pray by the coffin of Bishop Amfilohije, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, in Podgorica, Montenegro, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. The church said the 82-year-old died Friday from pneumonia caused by COVID-19. Amfilohije, known for his staunch anti-Western and pro-Russian political views, played a key role in leading the anti-government protests and putting together an opposition coalition that is currently trying to form the country's new government. (AP PhotoRisto Bozovic)