“I think that our church really could have been more active,” said Vartan Astsatrian, head of a government department on religious and ethnic minorities.
“For instance, they could have examined in which areas those religious organizations are more active and tried to take over those areas,” Astsatrian told a news conference. He did not elaborate.
The Apostolic Church, which had made Armenia the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301, is the oldest institution uniting Armenians scattered around the world. More than 90 percent of them are believed to nominally belong to it.
The past two decades have seen tens of thousands of residents of Armenia join other, mainly non-traditional Christian, groups present in the country. There are currently 67 such organizations registered with the Armenian authorities.
Their activities have been the chief concern of the Armenian Church ever since the Soviet collapse. Its top clerics have long been pressing the authorities to seriously curb “sects” like the U.S.-based Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Father Shahe Hayrapetian, a senior priest at the Surp Sargis church in Yerevan, advocated such restrictions in response to Astsatrian’s comments. In particular, he said, the government should ban aggressive house-to-house preaching practiced by many non-traditional faiths and allow the Apostolic Church to teach religious courses in all Armenian schools.
Hayrapetian also complained about the church’s separation from the state enshrined in Armenia’s constitution. “So let us solve this problem with state support,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
While stipulating such separation, the constitution guarantees a privileged legal status for the ancient church headquartered in Echmiadzin, a historic town 20 kilometers south of Yerevan. It emphasizes the church’s “exceptional mission in the spiritual life of the Armenian people” and the “maintenance of their national identity.”
The authorities in Yerevan attempted to impose at least some of the curbs advocated by Echmiadzin with controversial amendments to an Armenian law on religion that were drafted two years ago. They would make it a crime for non-traditional religious organizations 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. The bill would also ban religious minorities from engaging in house-to-house preaching.
The proposed legislation was shelved last year after strong criticism voiced by the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Religious minorities and human rights groups also expressed serious concern.
In an effort to address these concerns, the Armenian Ministry of Justice has since reportedly modified the draft amendments. But it is not yet clear when they will be sent to parliament.
Stepan Danielian, a human rights activist specializing in religious freedom, dismissed those modifications as insignificant on Wednesday, saying that the bill still makes references to “soul hunting.” He called the term “ludicrous and very dangerous.”
Astsatrian insisted, however, that the modified bill will only “liberalize” the legal framework for practicing religion in Armenia.