Karabakh: Will the new law on religion curb the number of sects in Karabakh?

Before declaring independence, Nagorno-Karabakh (Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous District at the time) was the only administrative entity in the Soviet Union where there was not a single functioning church, and the ancient cathedrals were used as storehouses. According to Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan, the head of the Artsakh diocese, there were 118 churches and 12 monasteries at the beginning of the 20th century on the territory of Karabakh, but after 1930 they were closed, and all the clergy were either exiled or executed by shooting.

The Armenian Apostolic Church resumed its activities in Karabakh in 1989 by restoring the Artsakh diocese. More than 30 churches have been restored and built in Nagorno Karabakh during the past 20 years.

Freedom of religion in Karabakh has led to the emergence, and, later, growth of the number of sects. Starting from 1992, when hostilities in Karabakh entered an active phase, many other religious organizations appeared as well.

According to Ashot Sargsyan, Head of the NKR Government-affiliated Department on Ethnic Minorities and Religion, 11 religious organizations are functioning in Karabakh, their “headquarters” have state registration in Armenia and have an estimated 3,500 members. More than 2,000 of them are Jehovah’s Witnesses, of whom, according to the data, 280 are permanent staff members who carry out propaganda and get financing from abroad.

The new law “On freedom of conscience and religious organizations” came into force in January 2009. The law gave religious organizations six months to get registered. According to Article 8 of the above law, no religious organizations, except the Armenian Apostolic Church and its traditional organizations, are allowed to preach on the territory of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

According to the law, a religious organization willing to invite guests from coreligionist foreign communities – preachers, for instance, can do so only if it has a corresponding permission of the Department on Ethnic Minorities and Religion. “Such measures restrict the rights of religious organizations,” said Arayik Khachatryan, a Jehovah’s Witness, “This is tantamount to state censorship.”

As of late March, only one religious organization – “The Armenian Catholic Church of Artsakh” – is registered with the State Register of Nagorno-Karabakh. (the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization had also applied to the Department, and it was given all the necessary documents and registration forms, however, the organization has not submitted the papers yet.)

“Having studied the documents submitted by a group of citizens from the “Fire of Vigil” NKR Church of Evangelical Christians, and having enough information about the activities of this religious organization in Artsakh, the expert group has concluded that a number of methods of psychological influence on believers used by the acolytes of this religious community contradict Point 1 of Article 19 of the NKR Constitution and Point 1 of Article 3 of the NKR Law “On freedom of conscience and religious organizations,” said Sargsyan. The organization’s registration application was rejected.

During the past few years, three people who refused to serve in the army on religious grounds were convicted in Karabakh. In January 2009, Gagik Mirzoyan, a Baptist who served his term but never gave the oath of allegiance was demobilized from the Karabakh army. He was issued a military card where there is a gap in the column titled “Oath.”

On September 5, 2005, military serviceman Gagik Mirzoyan, born in the village of Chailu, Martakert district of NKR in 1986, was convicted according to Article 364, part 1 of the NKR Criminal Code after 9 months of service in the NKR Defense Army for his refusal to take the military oath of allegiance and was sentenced to 12 months in prison.
Mirzoyan, who is a member of the religious organization “Evangelical Christians – Baptists”, justifies his actions on the grounds that the Bible commands not to take oaths. At the same time, he expressed readiness to continue service in the NKR Defense Army without making the pledge.

In its 2007 annual report on the issues of freedom of religion, the U.S. State Department included a report on Karabakh as well. The report states that Areg Hovhannisyan, a member of the “Jehovah’s Witnesses” religious organization, who refused to serve in the military as conscientious objector on religious grounds and was sentenced to four-year imprisonment in 2005, was still in jail.

Christianity made its way into Armenia in the 1st century AD owing to two disciples of Jesus Christ – Thomas and Bartholomew, who preached Christian teaching on the territory of Armenia. In Artsakh and Aghvank, the first preachers of Christianity were Thomas’s disciples – Dado (Dadi) and Yeghishe. Monasteries of Dadivank and St. Prophet Yeghishe were later built in the places where they died martyrs’ deaths. After Armenia officially adopted Christianity as a state religion (in 301 A.D.), the first Armenian Patriarch Gregory I the Illuminator founded the first monastery at the beginning of the IV century in the village of Amaras (Martuni district, NKR), and Mesrop Mashtots opened the first school in Artsakh.