By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian authorities have formally legalized activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization after years of criticism and pressure from international human rights groups, it emerged on Tuesday.
Hrach Keshishian, head of the Armenia branch of the U.S.-based Christian sect, said the Ministry of Justice notified him on Monday about its inclusion on the state registry of commercial, religious and other non-governmental organizations. “We received yesterday a certificate of the organization’s official registration,” he told RFE/RL.
The move, anticipated ever since Armenia’s accession to the Council of Europe nearly four years ago, came just seven months after the rejection of yet another registration application filed by Jehovah’s Witnesses. The authorities said at the time that its statutes and “forms of preaching” are still not in conformity with Armenia’s law on religious organizations.
Keshishian said the religious group, viewed with suspicion by many Armenians, made largely editorial changes to the statutes before again filing for registration last month. He was quite reserved about the ground-breaking event’s practical impact on Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Nobody has so far tried to disrupt our indoor gatherings,” he said. “In that sense, the registration will not change much. Our gatherings will continue the way they have been held in the past.”
Successive Armenian governments’ reluctance to legalize the sect was motivated by a perceived threat posed to the quasi-official Armenian Apostolic Church and, more importantly, its opposition to compulsory military service. The latter obstacle was supposed to be removed with the entry into force last July of a new law that gives young Armenian men an alternative to the two-year duty.
Those of them who do not want to serve in the armed forces on religious or other grounds can now spend three-and-a-half years performing civilian duties outside Armenian army units. Up to 20 Jehovah’s Witnesses have already enlisted for the new service, Keshishian said.
The Council of Europe as well as other Western watchdogs have repeatedly condemned the imprisonment of male members of Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing military service. The practice, it appears, is continuing despite the passage of the law on the alternative service late last year. It was one of Armenia’s key commitments to the Council of Europe.
According to Keshishian, ten Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently serving prison sentences ranging from 18 months to two years for draft evasion, while four others are under pre-trial arrest on the same charges. He said two of the men were convicted and jailed by courts as recently as last week.
Keshishian added that the new detainees are refusing even the alternative service because “they don’t know what they would have to do and where they would have to go.” “Nobody is explaining that to them. This seems to be done deliberately to cause young men to panic,” he claimed.
“For example, a young man may hear such a thing [from military officials]: ‘We’ll send you to a psychiatric clinic so that you either turn mentally ill people into Jehovah’s Witnesses or yourself become insane.”