By Hrach Melkumian
The head of Armenia’s small protestant Evangelical Church urged the government on Saturday to treat all religious groups operating in the country equally, saying that it has yet to ensure freedom of conscience guaranteed by the law.
The Reverend Rene Levonian said although the number of attacks on religious minorities has declined over the past several years, the authorities and the Armenian Apostolic Church are still often intolerant towards other faiths.
“Thank God, such cases are rare these days. There were more of them a few years ago,” Levonian told a news conference.
“Frankly speaking, there is religious freedom in Armenia, but it’s not sufficient,” he added.
Levon alleged that many instances of violence against members of non-traditional groups were encouraged and even sanctioned by senior officials from the government and the Apostolic Church, with which over 90 percent of Armenia’s population is affiliated. He also pointed to the authorities’ continuing refusal to register Jehovah’s Witnesses and prosecution of its adherents for their refusal to serve in the military.
The treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Armenia has been a major concern of international human rights organizations. Earlier this week the New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned Yerevan for continuing to arrest, detain, and imprison members of the cult, something which it believes is in violation of Armenia’s commitments to the Council of Europe.
“If we consider ourselves Christians, then we have no right to persecute and suppress anyone in our homeland. Persecution is a sign of a weak state and a weak church,” Levonian argued.
Levonian dismissed the common argument that poverty is the main factor driving thousands of Armenians towards non-traditional “sects.” In his view, the spread of such groups over the past decade has mainly resulted from the dominant church’s failure to meet people’s “spiritual needs.”
With some 30,000 active members and branches in the Diaspora, the Evangelical Church is among some 50 religious organizations registered in Armenia. The by far largest of them, the Armenian Apostolic Church, enjoys a privileged status under the 1991 law on religion.
Seen as a “traditional” Christian denomination, the protestants have overall good relations with the ancient Apostolic Church. There have been no reported cases of illegal practices against them over the past year.