Wednesday 31 May 2000

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

As Armenia's application to join the Council of Europe is about to be considered, the Jehovah's Witnesses seem set to be the main religious beneficiaries of the country's likely accession. The Armenian government already appears to be moving closer to fulfilling one of the conditions that the Council has decided to lay down if Armenia accedes to the organisation - that all religious groups should be able to achieve registration. The Jehovah's Witnesses - who have been seeking registration in vain since Armenia regained independence in 1991 - may be on the brink of achieving this goal, as Armenia's senior religious affairs official told Keston News Service (see separate KNS article). Another key commitment is that all conscientious objectors should be freed on accession, a commitment reaffirmed by the Armenian Foreign Minister at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg last Friday, 26 May.

The 41-member Council of Europe declares that it `promotes democracy and human rights continent-wide'. Armenia, which currently has guest status in the organisation, applied for membership on 7 March 1996. The Council's Parliamentary Assembly will examine Armenia's application at its plenary session in Strasbourg from 26 to 30 June. Ahead of this decision, the Political Affairs Committee adopted a report on the country's suitability for membership, which generally welcomed the religious liberty situation in the country, though with reservations about some provisions of the country's 1991 law on religion as amended in September 1997. The 1997 version of the law requires a religious community to have 200 adult members before it can apply for registration and grants some privileges to the Armenian Apostolic Church, the country's largest religious group.

The report, `Armenia's application for membership of the Council of Europe' (Document 8747, issued on 23 May), compiled for the Council's Political Affairs Committee by the rapporteur DEMETRIO VOLCIC, an Italian politician of the Socialist Group, includes one main section on freedom of religion, which reads in full:

`96. The 1991 act on religion, amended in September 1997, is criticised by human rights organisations as discriminating against religions other than the Armenian Church.

`97. Apparently it is the activities of "non-traditional" churches, mostly coming from Eastern Asia, described as "sects", that are causing a problem. The "sects" (for example, Jehovah's Witnesses) are accused of exploiting the toughness of life in Armenia and destroying traditional social institutions.

`98. No problems concerning the traditional churches have been reported. The sect issue is an extremely sensitive one even in other European countries. To date all religious groups who have made an application have been registered in Armenia, with the exception of the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose request is being examined. The authorities state that certain activities of this group are contrary to the constitution and the law, but they can appeal through the courts.

`99. In conclusion, the rapporteur believes that freedom of religion is in principle guaranteed in Armenia.'

The report also spelled out two specific commitments Armenia is obliged to sign that would impact the rights of believers (Para. 13, section iv): `to ensure that all churches, in particular those referred to as "non-traditional", may practise their religion without discrimination'; and `to adopt, within four year of its accession, a law on alternative military service and, pending the adoption of that law and within six months of its accession, to take measures allowing conscientious objectors to perform military service in non-armed units under the existing legislation and, on the occasion of its accession, to pardon conscientious objectors currently serving prison sentences or in disciplinary battalions'.

This report was approved unanimously by the Political Affairs Committee at its meeting in Dublin on 17 May and the meeting recommended for approval the country's application to join the Council, subject to the acceptance of a series of commitments on Council of Europe conventions, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, domestic law and human rights.

Although it is not known exactly how many conscientious objectors are currently imprisoned in Armenia, all the known cases are of Jehovah's Witnesses, some of whom are serving second sentences on the same charges. Jehovah's Witness sources told Keston on 30 May that eight young men are currently in prison for refusing military service, six of them sentenced this year including one, VITALI USUPOV, who has received the harshest sentence on such charges - four and a half years' imprisonment. A ninth Jehovah's Witness, also sentenced this year, is living at home, though he must report regularly to the police. A further eight young men still have their rights restricted after being freed from prison after serving one third of their sentences.

The Jehovah's Witnesses are also the only religious organisation which has been denied registration and which is currently still seeking it.

Speaking on 26 May in Strasbourg to the Council's Committee of Ministers, which is made up of ambassadors from the 41 member states, Armenian Foreign Minister VARTAN OSKANIAN reaffirmed his country's pledge to fulfil the commitments laid down by the Council. `Asked specifically by one of the ambassadors whether Armenia was committed to registering the Jehovah's Witnesses and freeing their members who had been imprisoned for refusing military service, Oskanian answered in the affirmative,' an official of the Council's secretariat told Keston from Strasbourg on 26 May. `He also confirmed that within four years the country would introduce an alternative service law.' However, Armenia's representative to the Council of Europe, CHRISTIAN TER-STEPANIAN stressed to Keston the same day that Oskanian's remarks were nothing new. `The Armenian authorities, including the president, the government and parliament, have long ago accepted these commitments and publicly declared their commitment to them,' he declared. `Foreign Minister Oskanian was merely responding to a question on the subject, not making a new commitment.'

The acting chairman of the State Council on Religious Affairs, LEVON MKRTCHYAN, told Keston from Yerevan on 30 May that discussions were already underway on registering the Jehovah's Witnesses as a religious organisation. He added that a new law on alternative service was being planned and said it would be adopted `if the state accepts it'. However, he stressed that this was not a matter for his office. He also declared that while he knew that Jehovah's Witnesses had been imprisoned for refusing military service, that too was also not within the competence of his office and he did not know how many were currently being held. (END)

Wednesday 31 May 2000

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Perhaps spurred by its application to join the Council of Europe, on which a final decision is expected in late June, the Armenian government appears to have accepted that it should lift its ban on granting registration to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Armenia's senior religious affairs official has confirmed to Keston News Service that detailed negotiations on registration are underway in the Armenian capital Yerevan between a team from the Jehovah's Witnesses, including a Canadian lawyer, and government officials on the text of the statute under which the group is to register as a religious organisation. Registration of the Jehovah's Witnesses is an implicit condition of accession to the Council (see separate KNS article).

While Jehovah's Witness representatives told Keston on 30 May that they are optimistic that the Armenian government is committed to registering their community, the registration negotiations come a little over a month after the National Security Ministry orchestrated attempts to prevent the Jehovah's Witnesses from celebrating the Memorial of Jesus Christ's death after sunset on 19 April, the only annual religious commemoration the Jehovah's Witnesses mark.

Commemorations had been organised in a number of centres across Armenia, some of which were disrupted by National Security officers or on orders from the National Security Ministry. In the city of Sevan, national security officers entered the premises where the meeting was due to be held and announced that they had orders not to allow the religious service. The 120 Jehovah's Witnesses who had gathered were told the action was taken because the group is unregistered. A number of similar incidents occurred in Yerevan and in Echmiadzin. `On 19 April just before the beginning of the Memorial service, a representative of the local office of the National Security Ministry accompanied by eight policemen with clubs approached the director of the "Araks" gymnasium,' Jehovah's Witnesses report. `They demanded the meeting be stopped and threatened to beat the attendants if they did not cooperate. 1,238 persons were gathered in the hall. They remained and conducted the meeting despite the threats. At the end of the Memorial, they found that the officials had vacated the premises.' In another incident in Yerevan, the director of a charity defied warnings from a group of five national security officers not to allow the Jehovah's Witnesses to use the charity's hall. `After long discussions, he allowed an abbreviated meeting. At the end of the Memorial service, the director of the hall was called to the local office of the National Security Ministry and kept there until late at night.' In almost all the incidents national security officers cited the Jehovah's Witnesses' lack of registration.

There have also been difficulties with the import of religious literature. On 30 March Armenian customs seized and confiscated 734 kilograms of literature that the Jehovah's Witnesses were trying to bring into Armenia from Georgia. The reason cited was the fact that the Jehovah's Witnesses did not have registration. However, Jehovah's Witness representatives played down both the raids on the Memorial meetings and the confiscation of literature by the customs service, believing that registration will end such abuses.

LEVON MKRTCHYAN, the acting chairman of the State Council on Religious Affairs, the Armenian government agency that registers religious organisations, told Keston from Yerevan on 30 May that a Jehovah's Witness delegation was currently working with a lawyer from the council on drawing up the final text of the Jehovah's Witness statute. `The process of registration is underway,' Mkrtchyan told Keston. `It is the normal process of registration. They sent in their draft statute, we sent them our proposals and they are finalising the text.' Mkrtchyan declared that there will be no reference in the statute to the Jehovah's Witnesses' attitude to military service, an issue which has obstructed their registration in Armenia for almost the past decade. `This will not be in the statute - we are not demanding it. There will be a point that they accept all the laws of the country and agree to abide by them.' Mkrtchyan rejected suggestions that the Jehovah's Witnesses had been denied registration in Armenia for almost the past decade, admitting only that they had been denied registration `for the past one or two years'. (END)