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If two draft Laws which began passage through Armenia's Parliament on 5February are adopted, spreading one's faith would be banned, Forum 18 NewsService has learnt. Those who organise campaigns to spread their faithwould face up to two years' imprisonment, while those who engage inspreading their faith would face up to one year's imprisonment or a fine ofmore than eight years' minimum wages. Gaining legal status would require1,000 adult members, while Christian communities which do not accept thedoctrine of the Trinity would be barred from registering. "These proposedLaws contain violations of all human rights." Russian Orthodox priest FrDavid Abrahamyan told Forum 18. Religious affairs official VardanAstsatryan told Forum 18 the government backs the draft Laws "in general".He declined to explain why the government has not involved the OSCE inpreparation 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 atproposed amendments to Armenia's Religion Law and Criminal Code whichsuddenly began passage through the country's parliament on 5 February. Inparticular, they are worried about proposed punishments of up to two years'imprisonment for those outside the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church whoorganise campaigns to spread their faith in public and a proposed five-foldincrease in the number of members required to register a religiousorganisation. "If we don't react this Law will be adopted," Rene Leonian,head of the Evangelical Church of Armenia, told Forum 18 from the capitalYerevan on 9 February. "If it is adopted, it would create an intolerantatmosphere in the religious field."Members of several religious communities told Forum 18 they had had nowarning of the beginning of the parliamentary process. "The first we knewwas when we heard this on television last week," Lyova Markaryan of theJehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 on 9 February in comments echoed byothers. "It's strange that no-one's informed us about this," Fr DavidAbrahamyan, a Russian Orthodox priest at the Mother of God Church inYerevan's Kanaker District, told Forum 18 the same day. "These proposedLaws contain violations of all human rights."Heavy new penalties would be imposed for spreading one's faith under a newArticle 162 of the Criminal Code. Those who organise or lead religiouscommunities that conduct such activity would face prison sentences of up totwo years, while those who participate in such activity could be sentencedto up to one year's imprisonment or a fine of 500 times the minimum monthlywage.The proposed changes to the Religion Law would see spreading one's faith("proselytism") more tightly defined in a revised Article 8. This banssharing of faith using financial inducements; "physical, moral orpsychological pressure"; inciting "doubt or hatred" towards otherreligions, their doctrines or activity; insulting other people orreligions; and "pursuing people" at their home, place of work orrelaxation, or by telephone. Article 15 bans religions that "control" thethoughts or personal life of their members.Gaining legal status would become far more difficult, requiring 1,000adult members, rather than 200 as at present. In addition, Christiandenominations could only apply for legal status if they believe in "JesusChrist as God and Saviour and accept the Holy Trinity". (Under the currentLaw, only religious communities - except those from recognised ethnicminorities - which have "historically-recognised Holy Scriptures" can applyfor legal status, a requirement which would continue.)Although the proposed changes to the Religion Law do not specifyre-registration for existing communities with legal status, they wouldrequire such communities to come into compliance with the new Law or ceasetheir activity.Parliament's website has posted the text of the two draft Laws, indicatingthat they were both approved for consideration on 2 February and that theywill have two readings. Parliament's Protocol Department told Forum 18 on 9February that the draft Laws' first reading began on 5 February, though novote was taken that day. It said discussion will resume at the next sessionin two weeks' time.The draft Laws were prepared by Parliamentary deputy Armen Ashotyan of theRepublican Party, which is the largest parliamentary bloc with nearly halfthe deputies. Forum 18 was unable to reach Ashotyan on 9 February, as staffat his office in Parliament would not put Forum 18 through to him.The draft Laws have the backing "in general" of the government, though notits full support, Vardan Astsatryan, head of its Department on NationalMinority and Religious Issues, told Forum 18 from Yerevan on 9 January. Headmitted though that as the Republican Party is the dominant party "theymay well pass". He said the government had sent its written view of thedraft Laws to Parliament in late 2008, but refused to supply Forum 18 witha copy of its views until he had sought permission from superiors.Asked where the government disagreed with the drafts, Astsatryan said thatthe proposed raising of the minimum number of members to apply for stateregistration from 200 to 1000 should be withdrawn. "We believe this shouldremain at 200." He added that the term "proselytism" should be removed andshould not be used in such a Law. "If any religious organisation is in asituation where the rights of others are violated, this should berestricted only then, and with strict limitations," he told Forum 18.Astsatryan told Forum 18 that the government initiated a meeting withmembers of selected religious communities in Parliament on 12 February todiscuss the draft Laws. Asked who had decided which communities to invite,he said the decision had been handed over to Ashotyan, the initiator of thedraft Law. Asked whether the Yerevan Office of the Organisation forSecurity and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has been involved and would takepart in the meeting, he responded: "We have not been in contact with theOSCE." He declined to explain why not.Protestant leaders told Forum 18 that they held a meeting today (9February) to discuss their response to the draft Laws.Leonian of the Evangelical Church in Armenia, which has 40 congregationsacross the country, said it is wrong to punish people for sharing theirfaith. "The approach to proselytism in these draft Laws is not the bestway," he told Forum 18. He added that he hopes the minimum number ofadherents needed to gain legal status will not be increased. "If the newLaw is adopted, communities will have to meet the new requirements and manyof them would not be able to do so."Many religious minorities have told Forum 18 that the existing thresholdof 200 adult citizen members to register a religious community is alreadytoo high. Fr Abrahamyan of the Russian Orthodox Church told Forum 18 thattwo of the six Orthodox parishes cannot gain registration under theexisting Law because of the high threshold. "It is already difficult tryingto reach two hundred," he told Forum 18 from Yerevan on 9 February.Fr Abrahamyan also objected to the existing restrictions for non-ArmenianApostolic communities on sharing faith. "We don't have the right to preachoutside our church building," he complained to Forum 18. "We can't go intohospitals, prisons or army barracks. We've also no right to build newchurches." He added that under the current Religion Law, they also cannotreceive funding from their leadership - in this case the Yekaterinodar andKuban Diocese based in Krasnodar in southern Russia - as it is locatedoutside the country.Fr Abrahamyan said the Russian Orthodox are not opposed to the ArmenianApostolic Church having a place of primacy. "But all religious communitiesshould have equal rights."Armenia's Constitution grants the Armenian Apostolic Church an "exclusivemission" in the country's life, while the April 2007 Law on Relations ofthe Republic of Armenia and the Armenian Church gave it extensiveprivileges over other faiths.Markaryan of the Jehovah's Witnesses - who himself was eventually clearedin 2001 of enticing young people into religious activity despite strenuousefforts by prosecutors and the National Security Ministry to convict him -says he is surprised that Parliament could now be considering suchamendments to the Religion Law and Criminal Code. "Maybe they won't beadopted, 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 inthe country," he told Forum 18. "And therefore all the Churches in Armeniacame together to fight against this."Astsatryan of the government's Department on National Minority andReligious Issues insists a new Religion Law is necessary. However, hestruggled to explain to Forum 18 why he believes this is so. "The currentLaw dates back to 1991, with amendments in 1997 and 2001," he told Forum18. "But the 2001 amendments were only very minor. Life has changed." Heinsisted that religious organisations need to be "better regulated in theirjuridical aspects".Armenia's male Jehovah's Witnesses also face problems as no genuinelycivilian alternative to military service exists. They told Forum 18 that asof 1 January, a total of 81 young men had been sentenced and were servingprison terms for refusing military service, while a further Jehovah'sWitness is serving a suspended sentence on the same charges. Officials haverepeatedly - but wrongly - denied to Forum 18 that they have violated theircommitment to the Council of Europe to have introduced a genuinely civilianalternative to military service by January 2004 (see F18News 11 December2008 <http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1228>). (END)Further coverage of Armenian-related religious freedom issues is at<http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=21&results=50>
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