By Gayane Danielian
Armenia’s parliament looks set to pass legal amendments that will make it a crime for non-traditional religious groups to proselytize on adherents of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The main author of the bill introduced in the National Assembly earlier this month defended it on Tuesday, dismissing concerns expressed by some religious minorities and civil rights activists. Armen Ashotian, chairman of the parliament committee on science, education and culture, denied that the proposed amendments to Armenia’s law on religious organizations are aimed at further strengthening the Armenian Apostolic Church.
“This bill is not aimed at strengthening a particular religious organization at the expense of others,” he said. “After all, the strength of a faith is derived not from a law but the tenets and preaching of that organization.”
Still, Ashotian admitted that the bill, co-sponsored by deputies from all four parties represented in the government, stems from 2005 constitutional amendments that guarantee the Armenian Church a privileged status. While upholding religion’s separation from the state, they stipulate that the ancient church has an “exceptional mission in the spiritual life of the Armenian people” and the “maintenance of their national identity.”
“There are about 70 countries in the world where religion is separated from the state but where there is an official or dominant church,” said Ashotian. “Twenty of them are European states.”
The legal amendments drafted by the pro-government lawmaker define the “hunt for souls” by various religious organizations as a crime punishable by law. The term, frequently used the Armenian Church, applies to the use of “physical, moral or psychological pressure” as well as “material incentives” in the dissemination of religious propaganda. Religious groups would also be banned from spreading “distrust” in other faiths and engaging in house-to-house preaching, a practice commonly used by Western sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The head of the Armenian branch of the U.S.-based Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons, expressed concern at these amendments as he discussed them with Ashotian in the presence of journalists. Varuzhan Poghosian said he believes they would unfairly restrict freedom of religion guaranteed by the Armenian constitution.
Poghosian’s concerns were echoed by Stepan Danielian, a civil rights campaigner. Speaking to RFE/RL, Danielian said proselytism is a purely religious term that can not have a legal status in a secular state. “In essence, the church is trying to become a state within the state and assume state functions, something which contradicts the principles of secularism,” he said, adding that the amendments would put Armenia at odds with the Council of Europe.
Ashotian insisted, however, that they do not run counter to the European Convention on Human Rights.