If two draft Laws which began passage through Armenia's Parliament on 5http://groups.yahoo.com/group/OrthodoxNews/message/10949
February are adopted, spreading one's faith would be banned, Forum 18 News
Service has learnt. Those who organise campaigns to spread their faith
would face up to two years' imprisonment, while those who engage in
spreading their faith would face up to one year's imprisonment or a fine of
more than eight years' minimum wages. Gaining legal status would require
1,000 adult members, while Christian communities which do not accept the
doctrine of the Trinity would be barred from registering. "These proposed
Laws contain violations of all human rights." Russian Orthodox priest Fr
David Abrahamyan told Forum 18. Religious affairs official Vardan
Astsatryan told Forum 18 the government backs the draft Laws "in general".
He declined to explain why the government has not involved the OSCE in
preparation of the draft Laws.
ARMENIA: TWO YEARS' IMPRISONMENT FOR ORGANISING SHARING OF FAITH?
By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service <http://www.forum18.org>
Religious minorities have expressed alarm to Forum 18 News Service at
proposed amendments to Armenia's Religion Law and Criminal Code which
suddenly began passage through the country's parliament on 5 February. In
particular, they are worried about proposed punishments of up to two years'
imprisonment for those outside the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church who
organise campaigns to spread their faith in public and a proposed five-fold
increase in the number of members required to register a religious
organisation. "If we don't react this Law will be adopted," Rene Leonian,
head of the Evangelical Church of Armenia, told Forum 18 from the capital
Yerevan on 9 February. "If it is adopted, it would create an intolerant
atmosphere in the religious field."
Members of several religious communities told Forum 18 they had had no
warning of the beginning of the parliamentary process. "The first we knew
was when we heard this on television last week," Lyova Markaryan of the
Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 on 9 February in comments echoed by
others. "It's strange that no-one's informed us about this," Fr David
Abrahamyan, a Russian Orthodox priest at the Mother of God Church in
Yerevan's Kanaker District, told Forum 18 the same day. "These proposed
Laws contain violations of all human rights."
Heavy new penalties would be imposed for spreading one's faith under a new
Article 162 of the Criminal Code. Those who organise or lead religious
communities that conduct such activity would face prison sentences of up to
two years, while those who participate in such activity could be sentenced
to up to one year's imprisonment or a fine of 500 times the minimum monthly
The proposed changes to the Religion Law would see spreading one's faith
("proselytism") more tightly defined in a revised Article 8. This bans
sharing of faith using financial inducements; "physical, moral or
psychological pressure"; inciting "doubt or hatred" towards other
religions, their doctrines or activity; insulting other people or
religions; and "pursuing people" at their home, place of work or
relaxation, or by telephone. Article 15 bans religions that "control" the
thoughts or personal life of their members.
Gaining legal status would become far more difficult, requiring 1,000
adult members, rather than 200 as at present. In addition, Christian
denominations could only apply for legal status if they believe in "Jesus
Christ as God and Saviour and accept the Holy Trinity". (Under the current
Law, only religious communities - except those from recognised ethnic
minorities - which have "historically-recognised Holy Scriptures" can apply
for legal status, a requirement which would continue.)
Although the proposed changes to the Religion Law do not specify
re-registration for existing communities with legal status, they would
require such communities to come into compliance with the new Law or cease
Parliament's website has posted the text of the two draft Laws, indicating
that they were both approved for consideration on 2 February and that they
will have two readings. Parliament's Protocol Department told Forum 18 on 9
February that the draft Laws' first reading began on 5 February, though no
vote was taken that day. It said discussion will resume at the next session
in two weeks' time.
The draft Laws were prepared by Parliamentary deputy Armen Ashotyan of the
Republican Party, which is the largest parliamentary bloc with nearly half
the deputies. Forum 18 was unable to reach Ashotyan on 9 February, as staff
at his office in Parliament would not put Forum 18 through to him.
The draft Laws have the backing "in general" of the government, though not
its full support, Vardan Astsatryan, head of its Department on National
Minority and Religious Issues, told Forum 18 from Yerevan on 9 January. He
admitted though that as the Republican Party is the dominant party "they
may well pass". He said the government had sent its written view of the
draft Laws to Parliament in late 2008, but refused to supply Forum 18 with
a copy of its views until he had sought permission from superiors.
Asked where the government disagreed with the drafts, Astsatryan said that
the proposed raising of the minimum number of members to apply for state
registration from 200 to 1000 should be withdrawn. "We believe this should
remain at 200." He added that the term "proselytism" should be removed and
should not be used in such a Law. "If any religious organisation is in a
situation where the rights of others are violated, this should be
restricted only then, and with strict limitations," he told Forum 18.
Astsatryan told Forum 18 that the government initiated a meeting with
members of selected religious communities in Parliament on 12 February to
discuss the draft Laws. Asked who had decided which communities to invite,
he said the decision had been handed over to Ashotyan, the initiator of the
draft Law. Asked whether the Yerevan Office of the Organisation for
Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has been involved and would take
part in the meeting, he responded: "We have not been in contact with the
OSCE." He declined to explain why not.
Protestant leaders told Forum 18 that they held a meeting today (9
February) to discuss their response to the draft Laws.
Leonian of the Evangelical Church in Armenia, which has 40 congregations
across the country, said it is wrong to punish people for sharing their
faith. "The approach to proselytism in these draft Laws is not the best
way," he told Forum 18. He added that he hopes the minimum number of
adherents needed to gain legal status will not be increased. "If the new
Law is adopted, communities will have to meet the new requirements and many
of them would not be able to do so."
Many religious minorities have told Forum 18 that the existing threshold
of 200 adult citizen members to register a religious community is already
too high. Fr Abrahamyan of the Russian Orthodox Church told Forum 18 that
two of the six Orthodox parishes cannot gain registration under the
existing Law because of the high threshold. "It is already difficult trying
to reach two hundred," he told Forum 18 from Yerevan on 9 February.
Fr Abrahamyan also objected to the existing restrictions for non-Armenian
Apostolic communities on sharing faith. "We don't have the right to preach
outside our church building," he complained to Forum 18. "We can't go into
hospitals, prisons or army barracks. We've also no right to build new
churches." He added that under the current Religion Law, they also cannot
receive funding from their leadership - in this case the Yekaterinodar and
Kuban Diocese based in Krasnodar in southern Russia - as it is located
outside the country.
Fr Abrahamyan said the Russian Orthodox are not opposed to the Armenian
Apostolic Church having a place of primacy. "But all religious communities
should have equal rights."
Armenia's Constitution grants the Armenian Apostolic Church an "exclusive
mission" in the country's life, while the April 2007 Law on Relations of
the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian Church gave it extensive
privileges over other faiths.
Markaryan of the Jehovah's Witnesses - who himself was eventually cleared
in 2001 of enticing young people into religious activity despite strenuous
efforts by prosecutors and the National Security Ministry to convict him -
says he is surprised that Parliament could now be considering such
amendments to the Religion Law and Criminal Code. "Maybe they won't be
adopted, but we are concerned," he told Forum 18.
Artur Simonyan, chief pastor of the Pentecostal Word of Life Church,
describes the proposed Laws as "very bad for religious freedom in Armenia".
"The State Church wants to take control over every religious activity in
the country," he told Forum 18. "And therefore all the Churches in Armenia
came together to fight against this."
Astsatryan of the government's Department on National Minority and
Religious Issues insists a new Religion Law is necessary. However, he
struggled to explain to Forum 18 why he believes this is so. "The current
Law dates back to 1991, with amendments in 1997 and 2001," he told Forum
18. "But the 2001 amendments were only very minor. Life has changed." He
insisted that religious organisations need to be "better regulated in their
Armenia's male Jehovah's Witnesses also face problems as no genuinely
civilian alternative to military service exists. They told Forum 18 that as
of 1 January, a total of 81 young men had been sentenced and were serving
prison terms for refusing military service, while a further Jehovah's
Witness is serving a suspended sentence on the same charges. Officials have
repeatedly - but wrongly - denied to Forum 18 that they have violated their
commitment to the Council of Europe to have introduced a genuinely civilian
alternative to military service by January 2004 (see F18News 11 December
2008 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1228>). (END)
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