By Karine Kalantarian and Emil Danielyan
A commission advising President Robert Kocharian on human rights issues has urged the authorities to take strict measures to stop a controversial religious group expanding its activities in Armenia.
Commission members and some government officials attending its meeting on Thursday referred to the Unification Church of Korean preacher Sun Myung Moon as a totalitarian sect that recruits young people with deceit and brainwashing.
The religious movement, active throughout the world, is understood to be the main target of the presidential body’s recommendations to the Armenian government that call for criminal prosecution of “subversive cults.” The commission, tasked with promoting protection of human and civil rights in Armenia, also demanded a toughening of punishment set by relevant clauses in the Criminal Code.
The calls came at the end of a heated discussion involving officials from the government’s religious affairs council and other experts. Some of them claimed that Moon’s well-funded movement is rapidly gaining a foothold in Armenia without registering with the authorities as is required by the country’s law on religion.
In the words of activist Aleksandr Amarian, the Unification Church is doing that by “affecting people’s brains” and “destroying families.” “There are destructive and subversive cults in Armenia that operate to the detriment of citizens,” Amarian charged.
The Unification Church, whose followers are commonly known as Moonies, was set up in South Korea in 1954 and has since expanded into various parts of the world. The Moonies have multimillion-dollar business assets in the United States and South America, which include 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of land in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Moon says, among other things, that Christians will be condemned to hell by God if they refuse to embrace his religious teachings, or Divine Principles. The 83-year-old leader reportedly claims he is the new Messiah and Korea is God's chosen nation.
Critics allege that Moon’s church recruits members by separating them from their families and brainwashing them into complete submission. Robert Boettcher, an American author who has studied the cult, wrote in a book: “By perverting freedom of religion, he can keep thousands of people in brainwashed captivity while he intimidates and manipulates the non-Moon world.”
Amarian and other participants of Thursday’s meeting claimed that the Unification Church is also regard as a threat to freedom by the Council and Europe and that the Armenian authorities can therefore restrict or ban its activities. They complained that Moon’s followers were recently allowed to hold a meeting at the main government conference hall in Yerevan.
“Today there is no state intervention [in the Moonies’ activities], even though the Council of Europe has given us the green light to fight against them,” said an official from the government’s religious affairs council.
Armenian law, which upholds the supremacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, is already seen by some human rights organizations as too restrictive towards non-traditional religious groups. Official Yerevan has for years faced strong international criticism for its refusal to legalize one of them, Jehovah’s Witnesses, over its members’ refusal to serve in the army.
Members of the presidential commission were quick to stress that their latest recommendations do not apply to Jehovah’s Witnesses. The commission chairman, Hovannes Asrian, said he thinks the government should at last register the group.