By Shakeh Avoyan
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian indicated on Wednesday that the Armenian authorities must further curb activities of non-traditional religious organizations even if that runs counter to Armenia’s obligations to the Council of Europe. Defying possible international criticism, Markarian advocated a harsh crackdown on “dangerous sects” which he said threaten the country’s national security.
“Security of the state and the people is more important than some [international] treaties,” he told top government and law-enforcement officials. “We will try not to contradict Council of Europe demands. But up to a point.”
“We will not allow those sects to act against the state. We will not allow them to engage in proselytism,” he added.
The sharp remarks came at the first meeting of a government council on religious affairs formed by the prime minister last month. The consultative body comprises high-ranking government officials as well as senior representatives of the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church and the much smaller Armenian Catholic and Protestant churches. Among its members are Deputy Prosecutor-General Zhirayr Kharatian and Deputy Defense Minister Mikael Grigorian.
The presence of the two men underscores Markarian’s hostility, shared by many politicians and the semi-official church, toward non-traditional religious groups operating in Armenia. Some of them, notably Jehovah’s Witnesses, are still denied official registration over their opposition to compulsory military service required by Armenian law.
Grigorian, who is also a top army general, accused them of seeking the “disintegration and demoralization” of Armenia’s armed forces as he addressed the council. Echoing Markarian’s comments, he said: “Europe is putting to us certain demands [concerning religious freedom]. But defense of the homeland is above everything.”
Markarian and Grigorian did not specify what specific action the authorities should take. Dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses have already been prosecuted and jailed for their refusal to serve in the army.
Armenia undertook to respect religious freedom of all of its citizens, including those affiliated with the non-traditional cults, when it was admitted into the Council of Europe in January 2001. It is also obligated to enact legislation allowing conscientious objectors to perform an alternative civil service
The Armenian parliament is due to debate a draft law on alternative service before the end of this year. Under that bill, conscientious objectors would do their service in army units without carrying weapons.
Markarian, who heads the nationalist Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), complained on Wednesday that Yerevan’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 said without elaborating.
Armenia’s constitution and other laws, which guarantee everyone freedom to choose their religion, do not contain the term “proselytism,” frequently used by the premier and senior clerics. Still, an Armenian law on religion upholds the privileged status of the ancient Apostolic Church and places certain limits on activities of the non-traditional groups.
On August 22, Markarian and Catholicos Garegin II signed an agreement making the church’s history a mandatory subject in the curriculum of Armenian secondary schools.