ARMENIA: No Progress for Jehovah's Witnesses Ahead of Council of Europe Vote

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 16 January 2001

With the Council of Europe’s final vote tomorrow (17 January) on whether or not to admit Armenia, the Jehovah's Witnesses have not seen any progress in their attempts to register, despite Armenia's commitment to end discrimination against religious minorities. Nor has there been any progress on releasing twenty-four Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned for refusing compulsory military service. The Jehovah's Witnesses claim a membership of 19,000 in Armenia, the only South Caucasian state where they have been refused registration.

Officials of the government's Council for Religious Affairs and the Foreign Ministry confirmed to Keston News Service from Yerevan on 16 January that the Jehovah's Witness registration application is still being refused (see KNS 22 November 2000). Michael Bagratuni of the Foreign Ministry in Yerevan promised to inform Keston of the steps Armenia was taking to meet its commitments to register the Jehovah's Witnesses and free the conscientious objectors in line with its promises to the Council of Europe, but was unavailable later on 16 January to report his findings.

An official of the Council of Europe told Keston from Strasbourg the same day that the Committee of Ministers is `fully aware' of the continued refusal to register the group, as is the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, adding that if the Committee of Ministers goes ahead and votes to allow Armenia to join, Jehovah's Witness registration `will be one of the criteria of post-accession monitoring'.

Armenia committed itself last year, as part of its Council of Europe application, to `ensure that all churches, in particular those referred to as "non-traditional", may practise their religion without discrimination', to free all conscientious objectors from prison and to introduce an alternative service law. Officials have recognised that registration of the Jehovah's Witnesses forms part of these commitments.

Apart from the Jehovah's Witnesses, only two other groups are known to function in Armenia without registration - the Molokans and the Assyrian Church. However, Arkan Kandilian, head of the analytical department of the Council for Religious Affairs, told Keston from Yerevan on 16 January that neither of these two groups has applied for registration. He added that among the 50 or so registered denominations are two communities of the Yezidi faith, the majority belief of the country's Kurdish minority.

The Jehovah's Witnesses have been seeking registration in Armenia in vain for many years. Their most recent application was refused on 20 May last year. Further attempts last October to negotiate with the authorities ended in failure, despite ten meetings with various officials. Eduard Safarian, deputy chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs, told the Jehovah's Witness delegation that the group may eventually be registered, but that `society is not ready for such a decision'. Registration could only be possible after a law on alternative service is passed and the law on religious organisations is amended, allowing for proselytism by other religions besides the Armenian Apostolic church.

The Jehovah's Witnesses report that twenty of their male followers are serving sentences for refusing military service, the most recent sentenced last November. Fourteen more have been freed after serving part of their sentences, but still have to report regularly to the police. A further four arrested between August and October last year are in prison awaiting trial.

The only progress for the Jehovah's Witnesses is that police and security ministry officers have halted raids on the group's meetings. `As of December 2000 the situation is relatively calm and peaceful,' the Jehovah's Witnesses reported. `There has been no further police action since the interference at the Memorial of Jesus Christ's death last April and the confiscation at the border by Armenian customs on 30 March 2000 of 734 kg of religious literature that Jehovah's Witnesses were trying to bring into Armenia from Georgia.' However, the Jehovah's Witnesses have complained of a continuing media campaign with `negative newspaper articles and repeated broadcasting of an anti-Witness video'.

The National Security Ministry (the former KGB) has been heavily involved in raids on Jehovah's Witness meetings in the past, but a ministry spokesman - who declined to give his name - told Keston on 16 January that he had no knowledge of actions by Ministry officers against Jehovah's Witness meetings, which have included forcibly breaking up meetings and detaining and beating participants. `The National Security Ministry has no powers to act against Jehovah's Witnesses as long as they don't violate the law,' he declared. `If they do violate the law they are subject to the same provisions as any other citizens.' (END)