By Emil Danielyan
Armenia's harsh treatment of a tiny religious minority is causing new strains in its relations with a key pan-European structure. The Council of Europe is expected to issue on Thursday a stark warning to Yerevan over its failure to legalize Jehovah's Witnesses and its continuing prosecution of young members of the cult who refuse military service.
Strasbourg officials say the practice runs counter to a key condition for Armenia's membership in the council. The Armenian authorities, for their part, assure that they remain committed to fulfilling their pledge to ensure the unfettered activities of all non-traditional religious groups.
But as recently as last week, an 18-year-old resident of the northern city of Vanadzor became the 23rd member of Jehovah's Witnesses to serve a prison sentence for a religiously motivated refusal to perform compulsory military service. A local court sentenced Artur Ghazarian to two years in jail, following what has been a familiar pattern in Armenia over the past decade.
About a hundred young men, most of them Jehovah's Witnesses, have faced criminal prosecution for violating an Armenian law that requires all male citizens to serve in the armed forces for two years. The strict legislation, which reflects the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and its ramifications have prompted strong criticism from international human rights organizations.
Armenia undertook to enact legislation entitling conscientious objectors to an alternative civilian service within three years of its accession to the Council of Europe in January 2001. The authorities say they are working on a corresponding draft law and will meet the deadline for its passage. In the meantime, they are continuing to enforce the existing legislation which does not exempt anyone from military service on religious grounds -- a stance denounced by Council of Europe officials.
The council's representative in Yerevan, Natalia Vutova, said the continuing imprisonment of Jehovah's Witnesses contradicts the letter and spirit of Armenia's obligations. "We are well aware that there are still prosecutions going on,” Vutova told RFE/RL. “Of course, it is against the obligations undertaken by Armenia when it joined the organization."
Vutova made it clear that conscientious objectors must be allowed to do a distinctly "civilian service,” and not be confined to special barracks inside army units, as is stipulated by a draft law pending debate in the Armenian parliament this fall. Under that bill endorsed by the Armenian Defense Ministry, Jehovah's Witnesses would perform only non-combat tasks for the army and would not have to carry weapons.
But members of the mystical Christian denomination, which predicts an imminent end of the world, say even that is against one of their fundamental beliefs: the absolute rejection of violence. Their strong opposition to military service is the main reason why the Armenian authorities still deny Jehovah's Witnesses an official registration that would enable them to operate legally. As the influential deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament, Tigran Torosian, put it bluntly: "Jehovah's Witnesses must bring their statutes into conformity with Armenian law in order to be able to operate freely."
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will likely express concern at this policy when it discusses a report on Armenia's compliance with its membership obligations late on Thursday. The Strasbourg-based body promoting human rights and democracy is already losing patience with Yerevan's reluctance to unconditionally abolish the death penalty. The dispute over religious freedom may thus further complicate Armenia's integration into various European structures.
Jehovah's Witnesses, meanwhile, say the country's admission into the council has not made their life easier.. "Membership in the Council of Europe has not brought about any change,” Hrach Keshishian, the head of the group's Armenia branch, said in an RFE/RL interview. “The authorities continue to jail conscientious objectors, saying that they must serve [in the army] as long as there is no law on alternative service.”
Keshishian said the illegal status of his organization means that Jehovah's Witnesses are unable to hold large gatherings and often have their religious literature confiscated by the authorities. One of his deputies narrowly avoided imprisonment last year after being charged with "luring" children into the cult.
Jehovah's Witnesses also have to grapple with hostile public opinion formed by the semi-official Armenian Apostolic Church and the local media. The dominant perception is that it is an anti-Christian "sect" lavishly funded from abroad with the aim of undermining traditional Armenian values.
Many Armenians also agree with their government in that dodging military draft while their country remains technically at war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh amounts to high treason. Alternative service, they argue, is a luxury small and landlocked Armenia surrounded by unfriendly neighbors can not afford.
But Keshishian countered that the cult can not threaten national security as only a small percentage of its estimated 20,000 members are young men. “The global experience shows that a whole country can not become a Jehovah’s Witness and refuse military service,” he said.
He also argued that all jailed Jehovah’s Witnesses are loyal citizens who would rather to go to jail than flee their country as thousands of non-conscientious draft dodgers have done.
At least two Jehovah’s Witnesses are serving jail terms for the second time, having again refused to be drafted into the army after their completing first sentences. According to Amnesty International, 16 others were released from prison last year.
Armenia's nationalist prime minister, Andranik Markarian, referred primarily to Jehovah's Witnesses when he advocated last week tougher measures against "dangerous sects." Speaking at the first meeting of his recently formed council on religious affairs, Markarian warned: "We will not allow those sects to undermine state security. We will not allow them to engage in proselytism." He then indicated that the government should rein in non-traditional religious groups even if that contradicts its Council of Europe commitments.
There are over 50 officially registered religious organizations in Armenia. The ancient Apostolic Church, to which more than 90 percent of Armenians belong, is the biggest and most powerful of them. Its privileged status is upheld by an Armenian law on religious activities.
The church, which last year celebrated the 1700th anniversary of converting Armenia to Christianity, is widely credited with preserving Armenian cultural heritage during centuries of foreign oppression. Mindful of its positive image, the church jealously reacts to the spread of groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and supports tough government action against them. So its top clerics could have hardly received a better message from Markarian.