Proposed amendments to a law on religion in Armenia are stoking an intense debate over religious freedom and church-state relations. Some critics contend that the wording of the draft law provides a basis for persecution of political dissenters and religious minorities. Others warn of a looming theocracy. But the amendments' sponsor, a member of the governing Republican Party of Armenia, denies any nefarious intent.
Under the proposed amendments to the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, people who proselytize without official permission would be subject to criminal penalties. Specifically, those who use "physical, moral or psychological pressure" or offer "material support" to encourage others to join religious organizations would face a year-long prison term, or a fine equal to 500 minimum salaries, about 15 million dram or $50,000. The law would apply to individuals "persecuting a person at home, the office, vacation areas, or other places, by phone or by other means."
The amendments would also increase from 200 to 500 the number of members a religious organization must have to be registered officially. In addition, the legislative changes would enable representatives of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Armenia's predominant faith, to work with the government "in cases specified by law."
A vote on the amendments, originally scheduled for February 23, has been postponed "because there are many suggestions that need to be discussed and included in the law," amendments author Armen Ashotian, a Republican Party MP, told EurasiaNet.
Annoyance with the door-to-door work of missionaries appears to have prompted the proposed changes.
"We remember being stopped in the streets or having someone obstinately knocking on our doors and persuading us of the rightness of the doctrine they propose almost every day," said Ashotian. "It is not seen as a hunt for human souls if it happens just once, but the law establishes the right to take the visitor to court if such practices repeat themselves."
The practice "needs to be regulated," argued Ashotian, who claimed that religious conversions regularly prompt suicides in Armenia. A police spokesperson could not confirm the claim.
The restrictions will not affect religious organizations that represent Armenia's ethnic minorities, such as Yazidis, Jews, Russians, Ukrainians and Assyrians, or Catholic Armenians.
There are 64 officially registered religious organizations in Armenia, including some Christian denominations that place a heavy emphasis on missionary work, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. No current official records exist for the number of members.
The amendments' lack of a clear definition for "moral or psychological pressure" and offers of "material support" prompt some opponents of the bill to fear that the changes, if passed, could serve as a tool of repression. "Today, when the political situation is so tense, the law may be used to punish those politically active people who are members of religious organizations [other than the Armenian Apostolic Church]," commented Avetik Ishkhanian, chairman of the Helsinki Civil Assembly, a human rights organization.
Human rights activists see the proposed amendments as a means for strengthening the Armenian Apostolic Church to the detriment of other faiths. "Several months ago, the law limited freedom of assembly, then it was freedom of expression . . . Now, it's freedom of conscience," said Stepan Danielian, chairman of Yerevan's Cooperation for Democracy Center. "This means Armenia is moving toward theocracy," Danielian added. Representatives of the Armenian Apostolic Church claim that 98 percent of Armenia's population of almost 3 million are members; non-governmental organizations make lower estimates.
Ashotian disputes Danielian's suggestion that incumbent authorities seek to officially establish the Apostolic church in order to tighten control over society. "The law does not target anyone. People can continue professing their religions. We just want to regulate the field to prevent sectarians from misleading people," Ashotian said.
Ashotian contended that the Armenian Apostolic Church occupied a key role in Armenian culture and thus it deserved to be "supported by legislation to keep its position."
One opposition member zeroes in on the apparent contradiction contained in the prohibition against providing "material support" - an activity also undertaken by the Armenian Apostolic Church, he contends. "Charity is a part of religious activities, including those of the Armenian Apostolic Church," said Heritage Party member Vardan Khachatrian. "Providing support to people is one of the [religious] organizations' missions, so should they be punished for that?"
Khachatrian contends that the amendments, if passed, could be used indiscriminately; grounds would be provided "to prosecute tens of thousands of people," he claimed.
"This law will further divide our society," he said. "It is politically divided after the events of March 1, and the law will deepen the schism by inciting religious intolerance." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Republican Party's Ashotian countered that those concerns "may apply to any law!"
"I had good intentions when I wrote the draft, so I am not responsible for the way the law is implemented," he said, adding that the legislation will be sent to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission for review. International organizations have not yet responded to the proposed changes.
One religious leader told EurasiaNet that he has already met with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to share his concerns.
Sargsyan, who heads the Republican Party, was "amazed" by the proposed amendments, claimed Dr. Rene Levonian, head of the Armenian Evangelical Church, which has some 100,000 members. "[H]e expected 'only minor changes' in the draft, so I suggested that the adoption of the amendments be postponed."
Other groups, however, argue that the changes do not go far enough. The One Nation Party, a political party that organizes rallies against religious groups that it terms sects, claims that organizations like the Jehovah's Witnesses, which decline military service, "aim to destroy Armenia, hiding behind the name of religious organizations."
Many Armenians support that belief. "We need a new and stricter law. We are a country with a small population and a religious schism or refusal to serve in the army may be devastating for us," commented Country of Law Party parliamentarian Hovhannes Margarian.
Opposition Heritage Party member Khachatrian, however, believes Armenia may face further problems at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe if the amendments are passed. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "The country's reputation in the world is so low today," commented Khachatrian. "We will deepen the crisis if we pass the amendments."
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the online ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.