KESTON NEWS SERVICE
Issue 6, Article 25, 27 June 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.
______________________________________

Tuesday 27 June 2000
ARMENIA BACKTRACKS ON JEHOVAH'S WITNESS REGISTRATION

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Ahead of the expected vote in the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly
tomorrow (28 June) on whether to admit Armenia to the organisation, there are
increasing indications from Yerevan that the Armenian authorities are bowing
to public pressure to refuse registration to the Jehovah's Witnesses. A series of
articles in the nationalist press bitterly criticised proposals that the Jehovah's
Witnesses might be registered. (One such article, in the Yerevan newspaper
Azg on 3 June, referred to Keston News Service's story of 31 May 2000
outlining Armenia's commitments to the Council of Europe to register `all'
religious groups, expressing horror at the idea.) A spokesman for the Foreign
Ministry told Keston from Yerevan that Armenia's undertakings do not commit
Armenia to registering the Jehovah's Witnesses, while an official of the
government's religious affairs committee told Keston that further changes were
needed to the Jehovah's Witnesses' statute before it could be considered. Amid
news that two more young Jehovah's Witnesses have recently been imprisoned
for refusing military service, a Jehovah's Witness representative in the
Caucasus now declares that the Armenian authorities have `no eagerness to go
forward'.

An official named SANTROSYAN of the legal department of the religious
affairs committee told Keston from Yerevan on 23 June that meetings with the
Jehovah's Witness representatives, headed by their Armenian leader HRACH
KESHISHYAN, were continuing to try to agree the wording of the group's
statute. `They must present a new statute which is in accordance with
Armenian law,' Santrosyan told Keston. Asked about reported remarks by
Armenia's foreign minister VARDAN OSKANIAN that the Jehovah's
Witnesses would never receive registration in Armenia (remarks supposedly
broadcast on Armenian television on 6 June but which the foreign ministry
denies he ever made), Santrosyan said he was not aware of any such remarks
but declared that the Foreign Ministry could not say that the group would never
be registered. He also rejected suggestions that widespread public opposition to
the Jehovah's Witnesses' registration would affect their registration application.
`The religious affairs committee does not take into account statements by
foreign ministry officials or by individuals - it only acts in accordance with the
law.' However, he declined to say that the Jehovah's Witnesses would receive
registration.

The acting chairman of the religious affairs committee, LEVON
MKRTCHYAN, speaking on the Hailyur news programme of Armenian
national television on 9 June, accused the Jehovah's Witnesses of violating
Armenian law in the charter they had submitted for registration as well as in
their activity. `In particular, preaching is carried out very publicly and in the
form of proselytism. We have cases, about one hundred complaints, when
religious preaching is carried out in schools, kindergartens and academies, and
there are complaints from residents of blocks of flats.' He claimed that there
had been cases of suicide and described the cases of members who refused
military service as `having mass character'. `And recently, after repeated
consideration, we - the board of the religious affairs committee - refused
registration of the Jehovah's Witnesses. But we continue discussing with them,
we ask them to change their charter into proper form and to respect the current
laws of Armenia.' The tone of the report in which Mkrtchyan appeared was
hostile to the Jehovah's Witnesses, noting with alarm that in seven years the
group's membership had risen from 100 to 18,000.

18 May Mkrtchyan wrote to Keshishyan to inform him that the registration
application of 18 April was refused because the group's charter `does not fulfil
some of the requirements' of the law on religion. Citing Article 16 of the 1992
law as amended in 1997, Mkrtchyan complained that the charter did not give
`information about praying places', and failed to spell out `features of the
activity' of the group. `It is desirable to mention more clearly the understanding
of the religious organisation of the Jehovah's Witnesses about the fulfilment of
civic duties.'

A succession of subsequent meetings at the religious affairs committee has
failed to resolve the differences. ARNO TUNGLER, the Jehovah's Witnesses'
representative for the Caucasus, told Keston from the Georgian capital Tbilisi
on 27 June that `nothing has changed'. Mkrtchyan has been `too busy' to meet
Jehovah's Witness representatives although he did pass on the message that
there would be no further written explanations of why registration had been
refused, Tungler told Keston. `The committee's legal department gives very
different explanations each time of why registration has been refused. They
sometimes say we must add something to our statute against proselytism, at
other times they say we must add something about military service. We never
get concrete words about what specific changes need to be made to meet their
requirements.'

Tungler told Keston that two further Jehovah's Witnesses have been sentenced
in recent weeks to terms of one year and two years' imprisonment respectively
on charges of refusing compulsory military service, bringing the total of
imprisoned Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors to thirteen. Tungler
points out that the practice of sentencing conscientious objectors continues
despite the commitments to the Council of Europe to end the practice of
imprisoning conscientious objectors.

Despite Armenia's charm offensive in its bid to join the Council of Europe - as
part of which it made its commitments to `ensure that all churches, in particular
those referred to as ´┐Żnon-traditional´┐Ż, may practise their religion without
discrimination', free all conscientious objectors from prison and introduce an
alternative service law - Armenian officials make little attempt to hide their
dislike of the Jehovah's Witnesses. In two separate interviews with Keston, on
16 June and 23 June, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, who declined to
have his name published, told Keston from Yerevan that Armenia's
commitments to the Council of Europe do not necessarily imply that all
religious groups must be registered, but that all religious groups should have
freedom of religion. `All religious groups - either traditional or non-traditional
- have the right to express themselves and to confess their faith. The problem
with the Jehovah's Witnesses is that they refuse to acknowledge the basic
principles of the Armenian constitution and laws.' The spokesman cited their
opposition to blood transfusions, calling this a `danger to society', claimed that
they encouraged suicide and accused them of organising `propaganda' in
schools without permission from parents. He denied that the refusal to register
the group or the continuing arrest and imprisonment violated Armenia's
Council of Europe commitments. `Armenia's portfolio with the Council of
Europe is filled. All the conditions are satisfied.' (END)

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