By Emil Danielyan
Representatives of Armenia’s office of prosecutor-general will be among members of a newly formed council that will advise Prime Minister Andranik Markarian on religious affairs, the government announced on Tuesday.
The prime minister’s office said the consultative body was set up this week with the aim of “boosting the effectiveness of Armenian state policy in the area of religion.” It replaces the government’s department on religious affairs which was dissolved earlier this year.
The new council will be headed by Markarian and will include representatives of the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Catholic and Protestant churches, government officials and prosecutors.
A press release by Markarian’s press office did not give the rationale for the inclusion of unnamed top law-enforcement officials. The premier will presumably seek their advice on ways of curbing the spread of those non-traditional religious organizations which are viewed by the government, the Apostolic Church and most Armenian parties as a threat to Armenia’s national security.
None of more than 40 non-traditional religious groups operating in Armenia will be represented in the council. Some of them have complained in the past about harassment of their members by government officials and hardline adherents of the semi-official church. The current Armenian law on religion places certain restrictions on their activities and upholds the privileged status of the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the most ancient in the world.
Last January, the head of Armenia’s small protestant Evangelical Church urged the authorities to treat all religious groups equally, saying that they have failed to ensure freedom of conscience guaranteed by the constitution. The Reverend Rene Levonian said 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.
One such group, Jehovah’s Witnesses, is still denied official registration over its opposition to compulsory military service. Dozens of its male members have been prosecuted and imprisoned for their refusal to be drafted into the armed forces along with other Armenian citizens.
This fact has provoked strong criticism from leading international human rights watchdogs. One of them, Amnesty International, welcomed in May the release of at least 16 Jehovah's Witnesses in the course of last year.
Armenia undertook to pass legislation allowing conscientious objectors to perform an alternative civil service when it was admitted into the Council of Europe in January 2001. A draft law on alternative service was unveiled by the government earlier this year and has yet to be considered by the parliament.