Armenia: Jehovah’s Witnesses Take Stand
Religious group threatens to sue government if it is refused legalisation.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Armenia say they will take the government to court if it refuses yet again to grant them official status.
The minority Christian group will submit its latest application for registration on August 18. The request follows last year’s appeal by the Council of Europe for the government to give the Jehovah’s Witnesses legal recognition.
Under Armenian law, a religious organisation is illegal unless it is officially registered. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been denied registration repeatedly since they first applied in 1995.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses say they have close to 8,000 followers in Armenia, and another 20,000 “sympathisers” or “potential followers”.
In the Soviet era, they suffered years of persecution, and were forced to operate clandestinely. In 1986, Sergei Glebov was jailed for 12 months for refusing to do military service, to which Jehovah’s Witnesses are opposed on pacifist grounds.
Although they no longer had to meet in secret after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, they have never been able to preach freely in Armenia. The group is unpopular with the country’s main Apostolic Church, which resents “imported” Christian groups that might recruit its members. The Witnesses have continued to fall foul of the authorities because of their resistance to army conscription.
Until last year, the registration process was in the hands of the State Council on Religious Affairs. Lazar Sujian, former head of the council, told IWPR that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were denied official status previously because of their proselytising, which he said was an offence under the law, and because they were conscientious objectors. However, a closer inspection of Armenian legislation reveals that there is no precise definition of “proselytising”.
When the council was disbanded its duties passed to the government.
Armenian media coverage has been universally negative, with the Jehovah’s Witnesses denounced as a harmful force.
But not all ordinary Armenians agree. Arpi Voskanian, a college student, thinks it is only fair that the group should woo new recruits. “If they believe in their religion, they are bound to disseminate it,” she said.
“I’m neutral about religion, but why put the Armenian Apostolic Church in a privileged position? Why does everyone help the Apostolic Church and you never get any objective information about the others, only abuse?” asked Voskanian.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses had hoped that Armenia’s accession to the Council of Europe in 2001 would force the government to soften its position, since the council demands that member states allow unrestricted freedom for all religious denominations.
In September 2002, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly expressly demanded that Armenia recognise the movement as a “legitimate religious organisation” — but the government simply ignored it.
Instead, pressure on the group increased. In July this year, the presidential Human Rights Commission issued two edicts which did further damage. One of them said that the human rights of Armenians, children in particular, were being infringed “as a result of proselytism and other illegal actions by certain sects”. The other urged parliament to amend the penal code to punish proselytising and “other destructive activities” by religious organisations. The commission did not specify which groups it was referring to, but it clearly had the Jehovah’s Witnesses in mind.
Hovanes Asrian, chairman of the presidential Human Rights Commission, defended the move, saying, “We’ve had instances when children were forced to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and there was nothing the state could do about it.”
But Mikael Danielian, a human rights activist who leads the Helsinki Association of Armenia, told IWPR, “These documents are intended to infringe the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They testify to the absence of freedom of worship in Armenia.”
The most controversial case involved Levon Markarian, who was sent to trial on charges of proselytising among children without their parents’ consent. The case passed through every stage of Armenia’s judicial system, but ultimately fell through and Markarian was acquitted.
“The court made the wrong decision,” said an unrepentant Asrian. The human rights commissioner went on to accuse the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, of putting pressure on the trial judges and acting like “a new Politburo for Armenia”.
Kristina Martirosian, human rights officer with the OSCE’s Yerevan office, said her organisation had actually exerted little influence. “The OSCE has sent innumerable letters about human rights violations to the Armenian government,” she told IWPR. “But those letters fall on deaf ears and change nothing whatsoever.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses come into conflict with the authorities most often when they refuse to be conscripted. This is an offence under Armenian law, and some 150 members of the group have been convicted – many of them more than once – because of their staunch pacifism. Twenty-four are currently serving sentences, trial is pending for another eight, and seven more have recently been released but remain under house arrest.
“No one forces us to do this,” Levon Markarian told IWPR. “It’s the personal choice of every young man.”
A new penal code which came into force on August 1 has reduced the severity of punishment for conscientious objectors — but only slightly. The maximum sentence has been reduced from three to two years, and judges may instead order a fine of more than 5,000 US dollars – a great deal of money in Armenia.
The government has so far opposed any form of alternative military service, variations on which are accepted across much of Europe. The Council of Europe stipulates that members should allow alternative schemes, and Russia recently initiated.
Not all Armenians agree that objecting to military service is a crime in itself — even if they are not keen on the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“That’s their own business,” said one pensioner. “All I want is for them to stop pestering me in the street and knocking on my door.”
Vahan Ishkhanian is a reporter for the website www.armenianow.com