ARMENIA: Charismatic Pastor On Remand.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 17 September 2001

As Armenia prepares to celebrate 1,700 years since the proclamation of Christianity as its state religion, the female pastor of Yerevan's Warriors of Christ charismatic church is about to enter her third month in a remand prison in the capital.

On 13 July, according to a 29 August statement from the church, up to 30 armed officers from the Alpha special police force conducted a raid on the church's settlement in the Yerevan suburb of Nor-Kharbed, where the congregation is constructing a four-storey church building on private land. The officers confiscated all movable church property, claims the statement, including more than 30 items of technical equipment, up to 400 video cassettes, audio material and literature - none of which has been returned. Four days later 46-year-old 'Mastegra', or leader, of the church, Shogher Khachatryan, was arrested on suspicion of swindling under Article 89 Part 4 of the Criminal Code, which attracts a sentence of up to 12 years.

According to Khachatryan's husband and member of the church, Artyom Nazaryan, the alleged crime has no victims. The two persons who are said to have been swindled - Armen Nikogosyan and Andranik Gazaryan - are currently seeking asylum in Belgium. Unable to return to Armenia to testify due to their status, Nazaryan told Keston on 12 September, these two made donations to the church which the authorities maintain that Khachatryan should have returned. Although the asylum seekers no longer have any association with the church, Nazaryan claims that they have told him by telephone that they know nothing about the charges.

On 13 September Vartan Astsatryan, an official at the government's Council for Religious Affairs, confirmed to Keston that Khachatryan was being detained on suspicion of 'financial con tricks', but said he did not have any further concrete information about the case.

Church members claim the arrest is linked with the authorities' fear of the church's growing prominence in Yerevan, and the possibility of it evangelising during the forthcoming papal visit. On 12 September Nazaryan told Keston that a Yerevan city court decided against releasing his wife on bail earlier that day. When he expressed concern at this decision, said Nazaryan, a court official commented to him that he should 'be patient and wait a month or so', by which time the main 1,700 anniversary celebrations - including the 25-27 September papal visit - will have taken place.

Members of Warriors of Christ also believe the arrest is linked with the authorities' reluctance to grant legal status to the church, which, they say, has been denied registration without official notification on six occasions since 1995. A few days before Khachatryan's arrest the church finally managed to submit a list (viewed by Keston) of the 200 adult signatures necessary for registration under Article 5 of the 1997 law on religion. There was thus, suggested Nazaryan, 'no longer any reason' not to register the church.

Council of Religious Affairs officials maintained to Keston on 13 September that the authorities had nothing against charismatic churches, while Astsatryan in particular stressed that another charismatic church in Yerevan, Word of Life, had registration and had hired a 3,000-capacity stadium without hindrance earlier this year. He argued that Warriors of Christ had not registered because they were unable to gather 200 signatures - which, in his view, was not an inordinately high figure since legal status gave an organisation extensive rights. Astsatryan clearly harboured suspicions of the church, since he suggested that the title 'Mastegra' originated in occult systems and referred to what he regarded as the threat to Armenia posed by 'sects' in general.

This is not the first time that Warriors of Christ have been targeted by the authorities. In 1995 Khachatryan, Nazaryan and five other male members of the congregation were convicted of 'hooliganism' under Article 222 of the Criminal Code following a police raid on a church worship service. The men's sentences of 18 months were commuted to between four and six months, while Khachatryan served 40 days of her two-year sentence in consideration of her then infant daughter.

Church members believe that the authorities, evidently disturbed by what they claim is the church's success, are trying to sow dissension by depriving the congregation of their pastor. 'They are trying to stop us building our church, scatter us and make us leave Armenia,' they told Keston on 12 September. So far however, their resolve appears to have grown stronger as a result of events. 'We love our country and the Lord does too - so things will change.' (END)