MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 480: Religious Minorities in Armenia, Karabach

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Sun Feb 15 08:38:01 2009

Original sender: Institute for War & Peace Reporting <editor@iwpr.net>

defence budget means military unlikely to be restored to pre-war
strength for some time.  By Koba Liklikadze in Tbilisi (CRS No. 480,

proposed amendments to religious legislation could makes things worse. 
By Gita Elibekian and Seda Muradian in Yerevan (CRS No. 480, 13-Feb-09)

KARABAKH FAITHS DECRY STATE CONTROLS  Minority religions protest over
new law that puts them under supervision of authorities.  By Lusine
Musaelian in Stepanakert (CRS No. 480, 13-Feb-09)




They fear that proposed amendments to religious legislation could makes
things worse.

By Gita Elibekian and Seda Muradian in Yerevan 

Armenian Jehovah’s Witness Margarita Hovhannisian said she has not
seen her son since he was taken away from her by her husband a year ago.

Two legal appeals have failed, and she is beginning to suspect the legal
system is biased against her because of her faith.

“My husband kidnapped our child, justifying this by saying he did not
want to leave him with a mother who was a Jehovah’s Witness,” she

While Armenia technically guarantees freedom of worship to all faiths,
Hovhannisian says that this is not her experience.

She cited a court document issued to her, which she claims effectively
states that it would not be in the child’s interests to be returned to
his mother.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are a tiny minority in Armenia, say they are
facing increasing prejudice as a result of their beliefs.

The group, which emerged from a 19th century American Bible study group
and now claims seven million members worldwide, is controversial for its
members’ refusal to serve in armies or to undergo blood transfusions.

“In Armenia, the negative approach towards the Jehovah’s Witnesses
is becoming ever more intolerable, especially since 2004, when the
organisation granted us permission to operate here,” said Tigran
Harutiunian, spokesperson for the faith.

But things may about to become harder for his co-religionists in
Armenia, where most people belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church –
an ancient form of Christianity that dates back to 301 AD.

Amendments to the country’s laws on religious freedom currently before
parliament would restrict faiths’ rights to evangelise – or to
“hunt for souls” as the officials behind the proposals put it.

Armen Ashotian, chairman of the parliamentary commission on science,
education, culture, youth and sport, who presented the draft changes to
parliament on February 5, explained the terminology used.

“We tried to create a definition of the hunt for souls and came up
with the following – in means preaching among a religious population
or among people who do not belong to any religious confession, when this
is conducted with material incentives, or with the use of physical,
moral, psychological or material compulsion, and creating distrust or
hate of other religious organisations and their followers,” he said. 

The co-authors of the amendments have also suggested changing the
minimum number of members that a faith can have before it gains
registration from 200 to 1,000 members, which could cause problems for
small groups.

If the proposals are passed into law, faiths would have three months to

Proselytising Christian groups of western origin began operating openly
in Armenia and other states in the more liberal atmosphere created after
the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

Many Armenians dislike having their doorbells rung on a regular basis by
small religious groups seeking to convert them. 

“I always slam the door on these sect members,” said Hasmik Qosian,
a resident of Yerevan.

Vardan Asatrian, the head of the office for national minorities and
religions in the government office, said this was a commonly-held

He said people were tired of being approached in this way, and argued
that a law which restricts proselytising was long overdue.

“That there aren’t specific laws controlling this… is an omission.
This situation has been neglected, and it seems we spend more time
protecting the rights of religious minorities than those of the
majority,” he said. 

“We need to create equality.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses say they do not force people to join their
organisation or pester them with demands, 

Religious minorities report that discrimination comes from official
sources in the country and is a constant blight on their lives. 

Hasmik Mkhitarian, who is trained as an English teacher, said she cannot
get a job in her home town of Vanadzor because she is a member of the
Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints, also known as the

“I studied our faith for a year and a half in London, and noted that
in my CV. The problem is that when people read that, they don’t even
invite me to an interview,” she said. 

“When I ask what’s wrong, they directly tell me that I belong to a
sect, and that people like me should not be teaching in schools.”

She blamed the Armenian Apostolic Church for discouraging any
alternative forms of worship. 

Shmavon Ghevondian, a cleric from the Armenian church, told IWPR that
any religious group that did not follow its canons counted as a

“Religion is dividing the nation, and if ethnic differences are added
to this, then we have a far from attractive future for our three-million
strong nation,” he said.

He said he thought the Jehovah’s Witnesses were the most dangerous of
the religious groups to appear in post-Soviet Armenia. He added that he
thought religious freedom in the country was unnecessary and had been
introduced solely to obey the rules of European institutions.

Armenia has had to adopt certain laws to satisfy the Council of Europe,
a continent-wide body that insists that its member states respect human

This legislation included a measure under which conscientious objectors
are allowed to avoid military service and undergo alternative forms of
service instead. 

The council’s criteria state that genuine alternative civilian service
which is not under the control, auspices, or supervision of the military
must be provided to conscientious objectors.

But Jehovah’s Witnesses in Armenia say that even with new legislation
in place, they still have to serve in a militarised atmosphere, obey
military orders and work under the military police.

Hayk Khachatrian, in his mid twenties, refused to serve in such a
climate and, as a result, received a two-year jail sentence in 2005. 

Eight-seven other Jehovah’s Witnesses are in Armenian prisons for
their refusal to do alternative service.

“How can I follow our precepts if my brothers in faith and I –
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Azerbaijan – start to shoot at each other?”
asked Hayk.

Human rights activists say Armenia has not tried hard enough to
accommodate the wishes of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite pressure
from the Council of Europe.

“They all refuse to do alternative service because of its great
similarity to military service,” said Avetiq Ishkhanian, chairman of
the Helsinki Committee of Armenia.

“In its resolution 1532 adopted on January 23, 2007, the Council of
Europe called on the Armenian authorities to re-examine the law on
alternative service, but this has not happened.” 

Yet even if legal changes are made to accommodate the beliefs of
Jehovah’s Witnesses, they are still likely to face widespread

Hovhannisian’s husband Arthur Torosian said he will not allow her
access to her child as long as she follows this faith.

“She went completely mad after she joined this sect. She took him all
the time to these meetings; she even held his birthday party there. My
son told me these things,” he told IWPR.

“You cannot bring up a child in endless meetings which will turn him
into a Jehovah’s Witness. I will bring him up myself, and when he
grows up he can decide for himself.”

Gita Elibekian is a correspondent for Armenia’s RadioLur social radio.
Seda Muradian is IWPR’s Armenia director.


Minority religions protest over new law that puts them under supervision
of authorities.

By Lusine Musaelian in Stepanakert 

Fears the Nagorny-Karabakh authorities are trying to restrict freedom of
worship have been raised by a new law forcing religious groups to get
approval from the authorities before they can invite colleagues to the
self-declared republic.

Officials justified the legislation, which was adopted in November last
year, by citing concerns over national security, but smaller religious
communities like the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been struggling to come
to terms with its demands.

Under the provisions of the law, religions have to ask the
government’s department for religions and national minorities for
permission to invite visitors such as foreign preachers. 

“This means that the representative of a religious organisation has to
appeal to our organisation in advance and tell us, for example, that
someone is going to a seminar or a meeting. They can only invite their
guests via us,” said Asot Sarkisian, head of the department.

The smaller faiths say this is unfair, since the Armenian Apostolic
Church, which counts the overwhelming majority of Karabakh’s 140,000
residents among its flock, is exempt from the legislation.

“Such measures restrict the rights of religious organisations. They
amount to state censorship,” said Araik Khachatrian, a Jehovah’s

He said the law also restricted the rights of communities to rent halls
for meetings, saying they could only do so if the government department

And other faiths have also felt oppressed by the law. Levon Sardarian,
the dean of the small Fire of Awakening church, a Christian group with
350 members that has been active in Nagorny-Karabakh for a decade, said
under the law their activities also had to be assessed by a state

“The number of restrictions can rise or fall depending on how
[officials] relate to the particular organisation in question,” said

Aren Baghdasarian, representative of the small Baptist Evangelical
Church, agreed. 

“We live in a free, independent country. If visits by my brothers in
faith could help our work, then we must do it, and no one has the right
to interfere,” he said.

Karabakh, which is an unrecognised republic ruled by Armenians, has been
largely peaceful since 1994, when a ceasefire was signed with Baku. 

But Sarkisian, of the government’s religion department, said it was
important to remember that a peace deal had still not been signed, and
that preserving national unity was important.

“We often forget that we live in a state of war. Therefore the
religious organisations have to account for the arrival and departure of
people they invite. Besides the activities of some religious
organisations have not been fully investigated,” he said.

In Nagorny-Karabakh, the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses to serve in
the army is particularly contentious, and members of the faith have been
imprisoned for four years for their conscientious objection. Officials
see such opinions as undermining Karabakh’s de facto independence.

The Armenian Apostolic Church said it understood the state’s concerns,
and welcomed the new law’s insistence on ensuring rival faiths did not
undermine security.

“It would be wonderful if the law was working fully, and all religious
organisations trying to encroach on national security were under the
control of the state. The main aim of the promulgation of this law is to
restrict the work of those organisations, which oppose compulsory
military service,” said Father Hakob Andreasian.

He said the Apostolic Church aimed to preserve the identity of the
Armenian people whereas foreign groups had no such concerns.

“Karabakh is unrecognised by the world community. However, every
religious organisation, financed from external sources, opens a
representative office in Karabakh. They exchange information, make
studies, invite guests and so on,” he said.

Many residents of Karabakh have a similar viewpoint, though often they
are more liberal than the church priests.

“I am not opposed to these organisations existing in general. But I
would prefer it if they returned to the true path,” said Karen
Galstian, a 28-year-old follower of the Apostolic Church.

Lusine Musaelian is Radio Liberty correspondent in Stepanakert.

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