Freedom of Religion 2009: U.S Dept. of State criticizes Armenia for few improvements in the freedom of minority religious groups

The Armenian Constitution provides for freedom of religion, however, the law places some restrictions on the religious freedom of adherents and there were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, according to the International Religious Freedom Report 2009 released by the U.S Department of State.

The report introduced by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week presents the outcome of monitoring through 194 countries.

The report refers to the controversial draft changes to the Armenian Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations and the Criminal Code which seek to legally define Christian belief as “the belief in Jesus Christ as God and Savior and an acceptance of the Holy Trinity” as a prerequisite for registering Christian religious organizations. These drafts also seek legally to define and criminalize “soul hunting,” a term negatively used as a synonym for all types of proselytism.

The introduction of these draft laws sparked contentious societal debate, with many local experts and religious freedom activists, as well as representatives of religious groups, viewing the drafts (which have yet to pass a second reading to become law) as being aimed against religious minorities and religious diversity in the country.

Throughout the reporting period, a group calling itself the “One Nation Party” continued, unimpeded by (and potentially with the tacit approval of) the authorities, to post leaflets in various areas of Yerevan denouncing Jehovah’s Witnesses and warning against “sects.” According to local observers, the same group, also referring to itself as the “One Nation Alliance of Organizations,” distributed thousands of leaflets containing even more defamatory content throughout the country. The leaflets compare legally registered organizations in the country to “Satanists,” labeling them all as “sects” engaged in antinational and destructive activities, and calling on Armenians to fight against them.

Throughout the reporting period, numerous minority religious groups reported a general trend of intolerance emerging in schools which involved targeting teachers and children involved in religious groups other than the Armenian Church. There were reports that teachers singled out children of minority religious groups during classes and that classmates targeted these children for abuse and mockery.

Citing leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Yerevan, the report says as of June 2009, 71 of their members remained in prison for refusal to perform military service or alternative labor service on conscientious and religious grounds.

According to some observers, the general population expressed negative attitudes about all minority religious groups. According to local experts, however, these attitudes did not affect personal and neighborly relationships, but rather constituted a general perception of minority religious groups as threats to the state.

Minority religious groups at times continued to be targets of hostile sermons by Armenian Church clerics, and members of minority religious groups experienced societal discrimination and intolerance, including in the workplace. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that between April and May local residents tried to hinder the construction of a new worship center in Vanadzor. (Lori Province) The police brought the situation under control and the construction resumed without further incidents. According to media reports the residents opposed the construction of the worship center due to its proximity to a school and a kindergarten, and apprehensions that the group would convert their children.

Most media outlets continued to label religious groups other than the Armenian Church as “sects” in their broadcasting, and some transmitted negative programs about them.

The report also mentions the film “Soul Hunt”, aired by the Yerkir media TV, which negatively portrayed minority religious groups, labeled them as “sects”, and accused them of extortion and endangering national security. An Armenian Church priest interviewed in the film said these groups intended to enslave people and used fraudulent means to recruit their members. The film, which was presented as a documentary, included obviously foreign footage showing crowds in trances, abused children, and theatrical enactments, and presented this “archival” footage as examples of activities of local religious groups.

The report mentions also improvements and positive developments in respect for religious freedom in Armenia, saying that unlike during the previous reporting period, there were no anti-Semitic news reports in the Armenian media.

U.S. embassy officials maintained close contact with the Catholicos (primate of the Armenian Church) at Etchmiadzin and with leaders of other religious and ecumenical groups in the country. Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, participated in many religious communities’ events to promote religious freedom.