SPECIAL REPORT - ARMENIA: Prime Minister Widens Council of Europe Defiance.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 25 September 2002

Just a week before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is due tomorrow (26 September) to discuss Armenia's compliance with the obligations it took on when it joined the organisation in January 2001, Armenian prime minister Andranik Markarian has widened his country's defiance of those commitments in the area of religious liberty. He told the inaugural meeting on 18 September of the new government council on religious affairs, which he chairs, that the government should curb even further the activity of "dangerous sects" even if that conflicts with the country's Council of Europe commitments. "We will try not to contradict Council of Europe demands. But up to a point." Armenia has already violated these commitments by continuing to sentence conscientious objectors and failing to free those already in prison (see KNS 18 September 2002).

Markarian complained that Armenia's Council of Europe commitments regarding freedom of conscience are "too liberal". "We respect human rights and are a member of the Council of Europe. But everything must have its limits." He told the religious affairs council that the government would not allow minority religious communities to seek new followers. "We will not allow those sects to act against the state. We will not allow them to engage in proselytism," he was quoted by Radio Liberty's Armenia Report as declaring. He claimed such "dangerous sects" threaten state security. "Security of the state and the people is more important than some [international] treaties."

Fellow council member Mikael Grigorian, the deputy defence minister, singled out the Jehovah's Witnesses for criticism, accusing them of seeking the "disintegration and demoralisation" of Armenia's armed forces. Echoing Markarian's comments, he said: "Europe is putting to us certain demands [concerning religious freedom]. But defence of the homeland is above everything."

However, neither Markarian nor Grigorian specified what action should be taken to curb minority religious communities.

The consultative religious affairs council - which replaced an earlier body that reported to the cabinet of ministers, which was dissolved last March - comprises senior officials from a number of ministries and the public prosecutor's office (the deputy prosecutor-general Jirayr Kharatian attended the 18 September meeting), as well as senior representatives of the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church and the much smaller Armenian Catholic and Protestant churches.

Present at the 18 September meeting were three representatives of the Armenian Apostolic Church, one from the Ararat diocese, one from the Artsakh diocese in Nagorno-Karabakh (which is not even in Armenia) and one from the church headquarters at Echmiadzin. Archbishop Nerses Der-Nersessian, head of the Armenian Catholic Church in the country, represented his Church. Keston has been unable to identify the Protestant representative. Yuri Avanesyan, head of the Baptist Union, told Keston from Yerevan on 19 September that no members of his Church had been invited.

The government's failure to guarantee equality of opportunity for all religious faiths has come in for criticism in the wide-ranging report on how Armenia has honoured its Council of Europe commitments, presented on 13 September by the rapporteurs Irena Belohorska from Slovakia and Jerzy Jaskiernia from Poland ahead of the Parliamentary Assembly debate.

Noting that on accession Armenia committed itself "to ensure that all churches or religious communities, in particular those referred to as 'non-traditional', may practise their religion without discrimination", the report criticised the government's persistent refusal to register the Jehovah's Witnesses and other problems affecting the group. "[The] Jehovah's Witnesses are subject to considerable pressure from the judicial authorities and it is clear that the public prosecution service acts with dubious zeal against them," the rapporteurs noted, citing the attempted prosecution of one of their members, Levon Markarian. "Jehovah's Witnesses are regularly harassed in the street and sometimes beaten without any reaction from the police." The rapporteurs also noted the refusal to register the Warriors of Christ, a Protestant group, and the detention of the pastor for three months last year.

The rapporteurs noted the constitutional separation of church and state but declared that the agreement signed between prime minister Markarian and Catholicos Karekin on 22 August making the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church a compulsory subject in the secondary school curriculum, starting this year, "appears to be in complete contradiction with this principle". The rapporteurs also noted complaints about the new religious affairs council. "Its composition seems to have triggered some criticism," they declared, pointing to the narrow range of representatives from religious faiths, especially given that 14 different faiths are registered at national level.

One of the most vocal critics of the council is Avanesyan of the Baptist Union, which has eight registered and more than fifty unregistered congregations. "I am not against the Armenian Apostolic Church being represented, but the council should contain representatives of all registered religious organisations," he complained. "It is not logical to have just a few religious groups represented." He told Keston that he had no idea the meeting had taken place and did not know what had been said or what concrete proposals had been drawn up.

While declaring that his Church had no "special problems", he pointed to restrictions on its activity that he felt should be swept away. He complained that Armenia's religion law allowed individual religious groups to register only if they have 200 adult citizen members. "We have more than fifty small religious communities that just can't get registration because they have fewer members," he reported. "They can function without registration, but they don't have legal status." He complained too that his Church still needs permission from officials to import religious literature, though he remains unsure who now has responsibility for issuing such permission as it was handled by the old Council for Religious Affairs abolished in March. "Maybe they want to keep out religious literature that is not very helpful," he noted, "but I believe all registered religious communities should be allowed to import literature freely."

Avanesyan also expressed concern about the position the Armenian Apostolic Church has recently gained in schools. "I am not against teaching of the history of the Armenian Church, but I believe children should learn about other faiths too, ours included of course," he told Keston. "Our Church is of world importance. About Islam and Buddhism too. Children should learn about more than one line." He stressed that lessons should not be denominational, but in the form of conveying information only. He regarded it as "strange" that education minister Levon Mkrtchyan had decreed in early September that all schools should put up portraits of the president and the head of the Armenian Church, Catholicos Karekin II. "Why should children sit under a particular portrait?"

Similar concern over narrow study in schools of the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church only was expressed by Liana Jamgaryan, secretary of the Baha'i National Spiritual Assembly, a registered religious community representing the country's 400 or so Baha'is. "We're in favour of the teaching of the history of all faiths," she told Keston from Yerevan on 25 September. "Each generation learns of their own faith only symbolically. They then don't know anything of other faiths and learn only fear of them." She believes children in Armenian schools should learn of the Armenian Apostolic Church and "perhaps a shorter amount" of other faiths, though purely in the form of information. "This will allow them to make a free choice."

Jamgaryan expressed some concern that the new religious affairs council had such a narrow range of religious representatives. "It is impossible for all faiths to be there, but perhaps there could be neutral people there - scholars who know about different faiths - who could defend all faiths."

She also criticised the requirement in the religion law that a group must have at least 200 members before it can register. "I think it is wrong for the law to specify any number," she told Keston. "If the authorities want to know which religious groups exist, let them register them and then they'll know who they are." She said it was wrong that religious communities apart from the Armenian Apostolic Church are banned from seeking converts. "We have no right to spread our faith. We have only the right to respond to questions when people come to us," she complained. "It is of course a great contradiction that we are allowed to exist but not allowed to grow. It is a restriction."

Hratch Keshishyan, leader of Armenia's Jehovah's Witnesses, was equally critical of the position of his community, citing to Keston the attempted prosecution of Levon Markarian, the imprisonment of "young men who simply want to contribute to their society without serving in the armed forces" and the continued denial of registration, despite the more than 7,500 adherents his faith has in Armenia. "We gave in our registration documents yet again," he told Keston from Yerevan on 18 September. "We were supposed to get the expert conclusion by 16 September, but we had no response."

By contrast, Archbishop Der-Nersessian had no complaints about the position of the Armenian Catholic Church, which is concentrated in the north of the country. "The Armenian Catholic Church is officially registered in the Republic of Armenia and it has its Constitution, which describes in detail the rights of Catholic Church in Armenia," he told Keston from Gumri on 23 September. "We never faced any problems in practicing our faith." He maintained that the history of other faiths would be included in the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church. He declined to comment on his attitude to the requirement that all schools hang portraits of the president and the catholicos. (END)