Deputies from Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) walked out of the Armenian parliament on Friday after failing to push through bills meant to protect the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church against physical threats.
The HHK drafted the two bills after Catholicos Garegin (Karekin) II faced calls for his resignation following this spring’s “velvet revolution” in Armenia.
An obscure Armenian group launched a series of protests against Garegin in June, accusing him of corruption and close ties with the country’s former government. Dozens of its members partly occupied his Echmiadzin headquarters in July. Some of them also physically confronted Garegin when he subsequently travelled to a medieval monastery in the southeastern Vayots Dzor province.
Police waited for several days before forcing the protesters out of the Mother See of the Armenian Church. This prompted strong criticism from the HHK and other conservative critics of the newly elected Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. They accused the government of showing contempt for “traditional Armenian values.”
One of the HHK bills would ban any demonstrations inside church premises. Pashinian’s cabinet spoke out against the bill last month. Only 43 members of the 105-seat National Assembly voted for it.
Citing this summer’s incidents, HHK lawmakers also drafted separate legal amendments that would obligate the state to provide Garegin with bodyguards on a permanent basis. Some of them seemed to imply that the summer protests against him were provoked by other, non-traditional religious groups active in the country.
“We want to protect the Catholicos against sexual and religious minorities that are financed from abroad and fight against the Armenian statehood and Armenian faith,” the HHK’s Hakob Hakobian said during a heated parliament debate.
“Our church is an inseparable part of our national security. Anyone who is against that church is also against national security,” declared Samvel Nikoyan, another deputy representing the former ruling party.
Lawmakers allied to Pashinian rejected the bill. One of them, Lena Nazarian, said there is no need for such legislation because the government will protect the Catholicos whenever he feels that his security is at risk.
Another pro-Pashinian deputy, Sasun Mikaelian, argued against “protecting the Catholicos against the people.” Mikaelian said the HHK itself is responsible for Garegin’s perceived unpopularity because the latter had grown too close to the previous government.
“Against whom is the prime minister protected by his security detail? Against the people?” countered the HHK’s Margarit Yesayan.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) also backed the HHK initiative, saying that not only Garegin but also the church as a whole needs stronger state protection. “I don’t think it’s right to put the Catholicos in a situation where he himself has to ask for protection,” said Armen Rustamian, Dashnaktsutyun’s parliamentary leader.
Only 28 mainly Republican deputies voted for the bill. Their colleagues representing Gagik Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party, the second largest force in the outgoing parliament, abstained.
“This is the most disgraceful vote in independent Armenia’s history,” charged Eduard Sharmazanov, a deputy parliament speaker affiliated with the HHK.
“There may be 28 of us today. There will be 2,800 of us tomorrow and 2.8 million the day after,” Sharmazanov said before he and several other HHK parliamentarians walked out in protest.
The Armenian Church’s official position on the proposed legislation is not known. Its chief spokesman could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The HHK bills were debated two days after Pashinian visited the Echmiadzin seat of the church and met with Garegin. The premier acknowledged the church’s “special significance” for many Armenians. Few other details of their meeting were made public.
Pashinian had strongly criticized Garegin in the past.
The Armenian Apostolic Church is one of the world’s oldest Christian denominations to which the vast majority of Armenians nominally belong. Armenia’s constitution recognizes its “exceptional mission” in the country’s history and social life.