By Emil Danielyan
An annual U.S. government survey of religious freedom around the world has found no marked changes in the situation in Armenia over the past year, saying that its authorities maintain “some restrictions” on non-traditional faiths.
The report released by the U.S. State Department late on Thursday again singled out the Armenian government’s refusal to legalize the Jehovah’s Witnesses and continuing imprisonment of its male members refusing compulsory military service.
The U.S.-based religious group’s leader in Armenia, meanwhile, said on Friday that prospects for its official registration remain bleak despite the passage earlier this week of a law providing for an alternative civilian duty.
“During the period covered by this report, most registered religious groups reported no serious legal impediments to their activities,” reads the report. “However, members of faiths other than the Armenian Apostolic Church are subject to some government restrictions.”
“Non-traditional religious organizations are viewed with suspicion, and foreign-based denominations operate cautiously for fear of being seen as a threat by the Armenian Apostolic Church,” it says, repeating a conclusion made by the previous report issued in October 2002.
The plight of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is again the main highlight of the survey conducted by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Its 2003 report contains detailed information about the sect’s unsuccessful attempts to obtain government registration that would give its Armenian branch a legal status. According to its leader, Hrach Keshishian, 15 Jehovah’s Witness are currently serving jail sentences and six others are in pre-trial detention for draft evasion.
The group’s religiously motivated opposition to military service has until now been cited by the authorities as the main obstacle to its registration. It should be eliminated with the entry into force next July of the Armenian law on alternative service.
Keshishian, however, sounded pessimistic about the law’s positive impact on his adherents. “It doesn’t look like this law will create new opportunities for us,” he told RFE/RL.
Armenia is facing growing pressure from the Council of Europe and other international human rights watchdogs to show greater tolerance towards the Chritsian cult. The report reveals that the U.S. embassy in Yerevan has also been pressing for its legalization.
But government officials insist that the Jehovah’s Witnesses first bring their statutes into conformity with the Armenian constitution and law on religious service. The government and the quasi-official Apostolic Church are also unhappy with the sect’s practice of house-to-house preaching, regarding it as “illegal proselytism.”
“They have never told us what specific changes we must adopt,” Keshishian countered. “Every time we file for registration they say that our documents are not satisfactory. They keep telling us to continue to negotiate with them. But those negotiations are leading nowhere.”
There are an estimated 7,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Armenia. Most of them are middle-aged and elderly women, according to Keshishian.
As many as 48 religious organizations are registered with the government at present. The Armenian Apostolic Church is by far the biggest of them, with some 90 percent of the population nominally belonging to it. The adherents of the Armenian Catholic Church form the country’s single largest religious minority. The State Department report puts their number at about 180,000.
Also registered are the much smaller Baptist, Seventh-day Adventist and Mormon churches.
Relations among those religions are “generally amicable,” and the authorities do not enforce legal restrictions on public gatherings organized by non-traditional faiths, the report says. “No action has been taken against missionaries,” it adds.