Authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh have refused to allow Jehovah’s Witnesses and another non-traditional religious group to legally operate in the self-proclaimed republic, citing their “methods of psychological influence” on the population.
A new law adopted by the Karabakh parliament recently obligated all religious denominations to re-register with a government department on religious affairs and ethnic minorities within a six-month period. All but two faiths active in Karabakh have already been granted such registration.
Ashot Sargsian, head of the department, told RFE/RL on Friday that activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the other group, called Rebirth of Fire, were effectively banned on the basis of a “negative expert conclusion.” “It is mainly conditioned by the fact that those religious organizations operate in Artsakh in violation of our laws,” Sargsian said, citing their “proselytism” and “methods of psychological influence.”
Artur Ispirian, a Yerevan-based lawyer for Jehovah’s Witnesses, dismissed the explanation, saying that the Karabakh law does not define the term “proselytism.” Levon Sardarian, a local Fire of Rebirth leader, likewise denounced the government claims as “unfounded” and “ludicrous.” He said no Karabakh official has ever attended religious services held by his sect.
Both Ispirian and Sardarian said the registration ban will be challenged in court. They also made clear that their religious organizations will not cease their activities in Karabakh in any case.
“Will certainly continue to operate,” Sardarian told RFE/RL. “We are ready for any persecution.”
Sargsian warned, however, both cults against any engaging in any “illegal activities.” “I’m sure the state would take strict sanctions,” he said. “First of all because, we have martial law in place.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses has long been at odds with the authorities in both Karabakh and Armenia because of its perceived threat to the quasi-official Armenian Apostolic Church and strong opposition to compulsory military service. Dozens of its young male members have consciously gone to jail to avoid the two-year service.
The imprisonments have continued even after Armenia enacted a law on alternative service in June 2004 under pressure from the Council of Europe. The Armenian government legalized Jehovah’s Witnesses in October 2004.