ARMENIA: Charismatic Pastor Freed But Case Continues.

 Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 14 November 2001

The pastor of Yerevan's Warriors of Christ charismatic church, Shogher Khachatryan, was freed on 15 October after three months in a basement investigation cell of the National Security Ministry in Yerevan, she told Keston News Service from the Armenian capital on 9 November. Although she said she had been cut off from all access to her family or her church during her imprisonment, she said she had not been beaten or mistreated. However, the case against her on charges of swindling continues, although she believes it will soon be closed. "I'm not guilty of these charges," she insisted to Keston. "I don't know why the case was initiated against me. Maybe it was because of the celebrations of 1,700 years since Christianity became Armenia's state religion or maybe it is because I'm an active Christian." Khachatryan, was arrested on 17 July on suspicion of swindling under Article 89 Part 4 of the criminal code, which attracts a sentence of up to 12 years. The procurator maintains that two local men, Armen Nikogosyan and Andranik Gazaryan - who are both currently seeking asylum in Belgium - made donations to the church which the authorities say Khachatryan should have returned (see KNS 17 September 2001). Her case is being handled by the procuracy of Yerevan's central district. However, Vladimir Shahinyan, head of department at the procuracy, declined absolutely to answer any questions about the case against Khachatryan or even to say whether the case was still proceeding in the wake of her release or had been halted. "We do not give out information by telephone," he told Keston on 13 November.

Keston tried to find out from the National Security Ministry in Yerevan why it had held Khachatryan for three months and what involvement it still had in the case. However, a press officer who declined to give his name told Keston on 14 November that only the head of the press office, Colonel Armenak Manukyan, was qualified to speak to foreign journalists in the name of the ministry and he was out of the building.

Khachatryan's arrest came four days after a 30-strong band of 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. Church members report that officers confiscated all movable church property, including more than 30 items of technical equipment, up to 400 video cassettes, audio material and literature, as well as money. None of the items has yet been returned.

"Our rights are highly restricted: they will not register us and, being in severe financial difficulties, we are not able to print and publish religious books," the church complained in a 14 November message to Keston. The church claims the authorities have justified their moves against it by citing the fact that it is not registered, despite the church's six unsuccessful attempts to register since 1995. Khachatryan told Keston that since her release from prison the church has lodged a seventh registration application with the government's Council for Religious Affairs. Khachatryan, who founded the Warriors of Christ church in 1992, has gone under the title "Mastegra" since 1994, a name she says was given her by God. The church began building in 1998 and, church members told Keston, Khachatryan is the building's architect despite not having any architectural training. The church says many if its members have sold their own homes to live together voluntarily in a community, citing as their example the early Christian church. (END)