By Gayane Danielian
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian assured the top clergy of the Armenian Apostolic Church on Friday that his government will continue to increase its “role and significance” in the country’s life.
“We plan to create soon a separate department inside the government staff that will deal with the state’s relations with the church,” he said in an address to high-level clerics from Armenia and Diaspora communities around the world.
They converged on the church’s Echmiadzin headquarters for a regular meeting chaired by Catholicos Garegin II.
Markarian urged them to rally Armenians around their ancient church and thereby thwart the spread of non-traditional religious groups who he said are “alien to the Armenian national character.” But he made it clear that the state will not use its levers to suppress or crack down on those sects that operate in accordance with Armenian law.
“The state can not enter into theological debates as that is the business of the church and religious organizations,” he said. “Our task is to create a situation in which both human rights and the interests of the state and the nation will be fully protected.”
The remarks suggest a softening of Markarian’s opposition to activities of non-traditional faiths. Last year, for example, he threatened to get tougher on them even at the risk of jeopardizing Armenia’s membership in the Council of Europe. But he assured Council officials recently that Yerevan will respect its membership obligations on religious freedom.
The organization has been pressing the Armenian authorities to legalize one such group, Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has been denied official registration over its opposition to compulsory military service. The problem is likely to be solved after the passage of an Armenian law on alternative service for male citizens later this year.
Meanwhile, the Armenian government is finding itself at the center of an intensifying controversy over its recent decision to hand over a building in central Yerevan, which houses two research institutes of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences, to Garegin free of charge. The Catholicos wants to construct a new official residence there.
Employees of the two institutes marched towards the government building on Thursday in a fresh street protest against the move. They argue, among other things, that their building has a historical value because it served as the head office of the Academy when it was set up by the Soviet Armenian government in 1943.
Representatives of the protesters were received by the chief of the government staff, Manuk Topuzian. They said he assured them that plans for the handover of the property have not yet been confirmed by President Robert Kocharian as the authorities continue to weigh up the situation.
Some government officials openly express their opposition to the church takeover. “In my opinion, that building should not be given away,” Deputy Minister of Science and Education Ara Avetisian told RFE/RL.
But Yerevan Mayor Yervand Zakharian countered that the building is in a seismically dangerous condition and will eventually have to be torn down anyway.
Clerics in Garegin’s office refused to comment on the row. Some of them were quoted by newspapers earlier this week as arguing that the Academy building was constructed in 1938 on the ashes of a medieval monastery destroyed by the Communist regime. Only one of its chapels survived the policy of militant atheism and is currently hidden behind the building in question. Garegin, who is based in Echmiadzin, wants to incorporate it into his future Yerevan compound.
(Photolur photo: The Academy building at the center of the row.)