Armenia continues to place “some” legal restrictions on religious freedom amid persisting hostile societal attitudes towards religious minorities, according to the U.S. State Department.
In its annual report on religious freedom around the world released this week, the department made clear at the same time that the Armenian government “generally did not enforce” those restrictions over the past year. “Most registered religious groups reported no significant legal impediments to their activities during the reporting period,” it said.
The report reveals that 35 male members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group were sentenced to between 24 and 30 months in prison for evasion of military or alternative service. “According to Jehovah's Witnesses leaders in Yerevan, as of June 1, 2010, 76 of their members remained in prison for refusing to perform military service or alternative labor service on conscientious and religious grounds,” it says.
The U.S.-based group has long been at loggerheads with the Armenian authorities over its strong opposition to compulsory military service. Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse alternative service, introduced in 2004, as well on the grounds that it is overseen by the Armenian military.
The State Department also pointed to the privileged status of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which was reinforced by one of the amendments to Armenia’s constitution enacted in 2005. The amendment recognizes the ancient church’s “exclusive mission” in the country’s spiritual and cultural life.
Citing the constitutional reform, the authorities in Yerevan drafted in early 2009 controversial amendments to an Armenian law on religion that would make it a crime for non-traditional religious groups to proselytize on adherents of the Apostolic Church.
The practice is defined as “soul hunting,” a term frequently used by the church clergy. It applies to the use of “physical, moral or psychological pressure” as well as “material incentives” in the dissemination of religious propaganda. Minority religious groups would also be banned from spreading “distrust” in other faiths and engaging in house-to-house preaching.
The passage of the draft amendments was put on hold earlier this year after strong criticism voiced by the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Armenian religious minorities and human rights groups have also expressed serious concern over the bill.
Stepan Danielian, a human rights expert specializing in religious freedom, described on Friday “soul hunting” as a “medieval term” that runs counter to the Armenian constitution. “Any religious organization could fall under this term,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “What is more, as a result of that article, scientific and other books could be banned in Armenia.”
“We have monopolies in the economy and other spheres, and the Armenian Apostolic Church today wants to have a monopoly on religion,” he charged.
According to Rev. Rafael Grigorian of the Armenian Evangelical Church, threats to religious freedom largely come in the form of verbal attacks by some Apostolic Church priests as well as non-governmental groups and media hostile to religious minorities. “They talk a lot about national unity, but in fact they themselves split up the nation with their behavior which we witness almost every day,” he said.
Danielian likewise accused Armenian media of promoting religious intolerance. “Television and some newspapers are pursuing a systematic policy of propagating religious hatred and discrimination in Armenia,” he said.
“There is no such thing in Armenia. The Armenian people are very tolerant,” countered Rafik Petrosian, the deputy chairman of the parliament committee on human rights.
A high-ranking representative of the Apostolic Church’s Mother See in Echmiadzin also denied any restrictions on Armenians’ constitutionally guaranteed freedom of conscience. “In my view, there is quite a high degree of religious freedoms in Armenia,” Bishop Arshak Khachatrian said in a recent interview with RFE/RL.
Khachatrian was also highly critical of the religious “sects.” “In essence, their activities in Armenia are nothing but a denial of the creed of the Armenian Apostolic Saint Church, which is considered the national religion of the Armenian people,” he said.
The State Department report suggests that many Armenians agree with such claims because “the link between Armenian ethnicity and the Armenian Church is strong.” “According to some observers, the general population expressed negative attitudes about all minority religious groups,” it says.
This assertion was borne out by a random street poll of Yerevan residents conducted by RFE/RL. One man summed up their dominant attitude when he said, “It is only right to consider [religious minorities] very dangerous because we are a small nation. You must not split a small nation.”