by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 22 November 2000

Despite its pledge to the Council of Europe that it would treat all religious faiths equally, the Armenian government is still refusing the Jehovah's Witnesses registration. Jehovah's Witness representatives have told Keston News Service that religious affairs officials have demanded a full list of where the group holds meetings as well as of their beliefs, something nowhere specified in Armenia's law on religion. However, the deputy chairman of the government's Council for Religious Affairs (CRA) categorically denied such claims. Although recognising Armenia's obligation to the Council of Europe to register the group - which has been seeking registration in vain since Armenia regained independence in 1991 - the official cited their rejection of military service and attitude to preaching as reasons for rejection.

`Nothing is going forward in our application,' declared Arno Tungler, the Jehovah's Witness representative for the Caucasus, who is based in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. He told Keston on 10 November that the last meeting between the Jehovah's Witnesses and CRA officials, at the CRA offices in Yerevan in October, had been fruitless and there was `no sense' in further meetings. `Even if we change our charter they told us openly that they would not register us until there is a law allowing alternative service and until the law on religion is amended to allow other religious groups [apart from the Armenian Apostolic Church] to preach.'

Over the summer, the CRA's lawyer had demanded further changes to the charter, including a description of the group's beliefs and a full list of places of worship. Tungler declared that as the Jehovah's Witnesses are able to meet only in private homes because of the lack of registration they were not sure it was right to give this information. `We fear this information could be misused by the government.' Raids by the police and National Security Ministry (the ex-KGB) on their meetings have been common, with a series of raids in April around the time the Jehovah's Witnesses marked their Memorial of Christ's death (see KNS 31 May 2000).

However, Eduard Safarian, deputy chairman of the CRA who was present at the October meeting, categorically denied that his agency had ever demanded a full list of places of worship. `All we asked was for the address of the group's headquarters,' he told Keston by telephone from Yerevan on 16 November. He also denied that the CRA had demanded a list of the group's beliefs.

Despite his assertion that the refusal to register the Jehovah's Witnesses was `connected solely' with the absence of a law on alternative service (which Armenia is pledged to adopting as part of its Council of Europe commitments), Safarian went on to cite a number of other reasons for rejecting their application. `Their statute must accord with all the country's laws before they can be registered - and theirs doesn't.' On military service, Safarian claimed that `some groups write in their statute that their members serve in the army'. Asked to name any religious group that has incorporated this in its statute, Safarian spoke vaguely of `some Protestant churches', but was unable to name any. He was also unable to identify which law made registration contingent on a group's attitude to military service.

Safarian questioned why the Jehovah's Witnesses had never challenged rejection of registration in the courts. Despite his earlier statements he claimed that the CRA will consider any new application as soon as it is received. `Armenia has obligations in the Council of Europe to register the Jehovah's Witnesses, but this will take some time.'

Tungler is concerned about the continuing prison sentences against Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse to serve in the army. `They have returned to the old pattern: bringing young men to their military unit with violence and then harsh judgments.' He cited the case of one Witness, who was brutally beaten by police officers in September in pre-trial detention.

Since the beginning of this year, twenty Witnesses have been sentenced to imprisonment of up to four and a half years for refusing military service. Although sentences reduced through the summer, they are again increasing. A further fourteen have been freed this year after serving some of their sentences (although they must still report regularly to the police), while a fifteenth was freed when his tuberculosis worsened. Four more Witnesses, arrested between August and October, are in prison awaiting trial. All are willing to perform non-military alternative service. (END)