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Restrictive religious laws

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Although Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official State religion in 301 AD, and despite the role the Armenian Apostolic Church has taken upon itself in terms of shaping national identity, it had not been known for restricting other faiths as much as other post-Soviet republics. Indeed, allowing other religious groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons to operate in a virtually mono-ethnic country was one of the obligations Armenia took upon itself when it joined the Council of Europe.

However, with the power of the Orthodox Church alarming many in neighboring Georgia, there are concerns that attitudes towards religion might change, and specifically with the introduction of three new laws on religion in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh which will restrict the activities of any group other than the Armenian Apostolic Church. Ringing even more alarm bells about religious freedom in the region, Forum 18 reports that the legislation was drawn up without consulting international monitoring bodies.

If two draft Laws which began passage through Armenia's Parliament on 5 February are adopted, spreading one's faith would be banned, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Those who organise campaigns to spread their faith would face up to two years' imprisonment, while those who engage in spreading their faith would face up to one year's imprisonment or a fine of more than eight years' minimum wages. Gaining legal status would require 1,000 adult members, while Christian communities which do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity would be barred from registering. "These proposed Laws contain violations of all human rights." Russian Orthodox priest Fr David Abrahamyan told Forum 18. Religious affairs official Vardan Astsatryan told Forum 18 the government backs the draft Laws "in general". He declined to explain why the government has not involved the OSCE in preparation of the draft Laws. link

Armen Ashotyan, an MP from the governing Republican party responsible for the legislation, is already no stranger to controversy with one blogger expressing alarm at his plans to build a church in close proximity to the Armenian National Assembly in order to "bring the Armenian Apostolic Church closer to the official representative body." What makes the situation even worse is the lack of tolerance which already defines much of society.

[...] it is not religion itself--religious doctrine, beliefs, or practice--that affects political outcomes. Rather, it is how different groups in transitioning countries use religion to gain power and influence outcomes. I argue that there is nothing peculiar to Eastern Christianity that requires that it oppose democracy. Rather, it is the confluence of Eastern Christian religious organizations with nationalist sentiments and movements that has made them at different times supporters of liberalization and opponents of it. [...]


Stiopa Safarian, policy analyst at the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS) described the religious situation in Armenia as part of a bigger problem of not recognizing the rights of minorities in the country. But this attitude does not characterize the Armenians alone. A comparative study of public opinion polls taken in Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan in 2004 found that people in the Caucasus are intolerant of other ethnic groups and have a limited understanding of the role of democracy in resolving conflicts.


Some claimed that the typical Armenian understands human rights to contain western, anti-national, and anti-traditional ideas such as the protection of the rights of homosexuals and other ideas that serve to erode Armenian culture. [...] link


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Meanwhile, in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh a similarly restrictive law on religion was rushed through while civil society activists were preparing for the New Year and Christmas holidays. The legislation again effectively gives a monopoly to the Armenian Apostolic Church and raises questions regarding the ownership of monuments and mosques which used to belong to the territory's Azerbaijani minority until they were forced out during the war in the early 1990s.
The President of the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, Bako Sahakyan, has signed a repressive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It comes into force ten days after its official publication, which is expected to be after the current Christmas holidays. No officials were available to discuss the new Law, because of public holidays for Christmas which the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates on 6 January 2009. The main restrictions in the new Law are: an apparent ban on unregistered religious activity; highly restrictive requirements to gain legal recognition; state censorship of religious literature; an undefined "monopoly" given to the Armenian Apostolic Church over preaching and spreading its faith while restricting other faiths to similarly undefined "rallying their own faithful". Many articles of the Law are formulated in a way that lacks clarity, making the intended implementation of the Law uncertain. The Law also does not resolve the issue of conscientious objection to military service. link

At time of writing, civil society groups as well as the local media in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh remain silent on the new laws. It is also uncertain whether the Council of Europe will comment on what appears to be legislation which backtracks on already implemented reforms in Armenia which allowed religious freedom and promoted tolerance in society.

Photos: Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 1994


Ani | February 17, 2009 4:50 PM | Reply

The proposed Armenian law is actually threatening beyond religion, if I'm reading this article correctly: http://www.panarmenian.net/news/eng/?nid=28714

Proselytism will be criminally persecuted in Armenia

“The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations was adopted in 1991. It prohibits proselytism, yet doesn’t offer a clear definition of the phenomenon,” Armen Ashotyan told a news conference.

Proselytism is the term employed by the International Council of Churches. It is the practice of attempting to convert people to another opinion and, particularly, another religion. It is also used to refer to other religions’ attempts to convert people to their beliefs or even any attempt to convert people to another point of view, religious or not.

“In such cases, citizens can turn to relevant state bodies to protect their rights,” Ashotyan said.

“Besides, amendments to the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations will include sanctions for proselytism, to be punished with a penalty of 500 minimal salaries or 2-year imprisonment,” he added.

So if someone is having a spirited discussion (political, philosophical, cultural, sexual, etc.) and is trying to convince another of their point of view, is this going to be grounds for imprisonment? Scary, scary, scary.

Onnik Krikorian | February 17, 2009 5:11 PM | Reply

RFE/RL today reported on the Armenian legislation and also quotes concerns from one civil society activist:

Armenia’s parliament looks set to pass legal amendments that will make it a crime for non-traditional religious groups to proselytize on adherents of the Armenian Apostolic Church.


The head of the Armenian branch of the U.S.-based Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons, expressed concern at these amendments as he discussed them with Ashotian in the presence of journalists. Varuzhan Poghosian said he believes they would unfairly restrict freedom of religion guaranteed by the Armenian constitution.

Poghosian’s concerns were echoed by Stepan Danielian, a civil rights campaigner. Speaking to RFE/RL, Danielian said proselytism is a purely religious term that can not have a legal status in a secular state. “In essence, the church is trying to become a state within the state and assume state functions, something which contradicts the principles of secularism,” he said, adding that the amendments would put Armenia at odds with the Council of Europe.



Murad Meneshian | February 19, 2009 1:22 AM | Reply

This despicable act by the Armenian government is utterly barbaric. For a people who lived under Zoroastrianism and then Islam for over two thousand years, and thousands of Armenians still living in many Muslim countries without restrictions, to allow the Armenian government to implement such a law is the ultimate in hypocrisy. Do we have the right now to complain that for over two millennia we were subjected to forced conversions and massacares because of our Christian religion? Has Vartanants not taught us anything? And where will it stop next, FORCE everyone in Armenia to accept the Armenian Church? We consider ourselved a civilized people, is this the way we demonstrate it?

Onnik Krikorian | February 25, 2009 2:02 PM | Reply


Proposed amendments to a law on religion in Armenia are stoking an intense debate over religious freedom and church-state relations. Some critics contend that the wording of the draft law provides a basis for persecution of political dissenters and religious minorities. [...]


Human rights activists see the proposed amendments as a means for strengthening the Armenian Apostolic Church to the detriment of other faiths. "Several months ago, the law limited freedom of assembly, then it was freedom of expression . . . Now, it’s freedom of conscience," said Stepan Danielian, chairman of Yerevan’s Cooperation for Democracy Center. "This means Armenia is moving toward theocracy," Danielian added. [...]


One religious leader told EurasiaNet that he has already met with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to share his concerns.

Sargsyan, who heads the Republican Party, was "amazed" by the proposed amendments, claimed Dr. Rene Levonian, head of the Armenian Evangelical Church, which has some 100,000 members. "[H]e expected ’only minor changes’ in the draft, so I suggested that the adoption of the amendments be postponed."


Opposition Heritage Party member Khachatrian, however, believes Armenia may face further problems at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe if the amendments are passed. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "The country’s reputation in the world is so low today," commented Khachatrian. "We will deepen the crisis if we pass the amendments."


What do you think?