By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian Apostolic Church has urged the government to reconsider its decision to legalize the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group, again denouncing it and calling for more restrictions on the activities of non-traditional Christian sects.
The issue, extremely sensitive in Armenia, prompted an extraordinary meeting of the church’s Supreme Spiritual Council earlier this week. It was chaired by Catholicos Garegin II.
“The Armenian Church expresses concern to the effect that religious organizations are registered by relevant state bodies as a result of insufficient examinations and unscrupulous adherence to the law,” the council said in a statement released late on Wednesday. “The activities of totalitarian religious organizations, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, run counter to our national and state interests and aspirations.”
“The Supreme Spiritual Council expects relevant state bodies to reconsider and regulate the mentioned issues,” the statement added.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses were registered by the Justice Ministry last month after years of pressure from international human rights groups. The move fulfilled one of Armenia’s membership commitments to the Council of Europe.
The U.S.-based sect was outlawed mainly due to its opposition to military service which is mandatory in Armenia. Scores of its young male adherents have been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the armed forces. The registration was made possible by an Armenian law on alternative service -- another condition for Yerevan’s accession to the Council of Europe in 2001.
The Apostolic Church, to which more than 90 percent of Armenians nominally belong, views the presence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other non-traditional faiths in the country as a threat to its privileged status upheld by an Armenian law on religious organizations. The ancient church enjoys the exclusive right to publicly and freely disseminate its beliefs.
Still, its governing body said the law must be amended to place additional curbs on the sects which it regards as anti-Christian. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, also very hostile to the sects, promised to do just that shortly after the legalization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But the church’s reliance on government support was strongly criticized by an Armenian opposition leader. Victor Dallakian of the Artarutyun alliance said the church should only blame itself for the spread of the religious rivals. Dallakian specifically attacked Garegin, reminding reporters of his controversial decision to preside over religious festivity that was held as part of a campaign rally staged by President Robert Kocharian ahead of last year’s disputed presidential elections.