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Religious sect given official status in Armenia

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The Right to “Witness”: Religious “sect” given official status in Armenia

On October 8, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were registered as an official religious group in Armenia. In doing so, the republic meets requirements of the Council of Europe that the religious minority be recognized and protected.

The group has applied to the Ministry of Justice three times since 2001. Twice before they were rejected.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have been the subject of controversy in the overwhelmingly Armenian Apostolic republic and have claimed discrimination by the government, and especially by the Armenian army.

The official status, announced Monday, was met with disapproval by the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.

“The organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, by principle, is anti-Christian and has no ties with our national history, identity and psychology,” said Father Vahram Melikyan, head of informational services of the Holy See. The priest expressed concerned that while the Jehovah’s Witnesses are protected by the law on freedom of conscience and religion, their acceptance could be detrimental to Armenian traditions.

“It may only bring disaster as the mentioned law does not specify what penalty will be inflicted upon religious organizations for proselytizing, breaking families, and sowing seeds of dissension in people. And the Jehovah’s Witnesses along with several other organizations carry out this mission,” Melikyan said.

Meanwhile, as Tigran Mukuchyan, Deputy Minister of Justice, put it, the laws are imperfect and their improvement takes time.

“By registering the organization we brought them into the legal field,” Mukuchyan told ArmeniaNow. “This obliges them to observe and practice the Armenian laws. Proselytizing (literally ‘soul hunting’ in the native language) in Armenia is prohibited by law and any violation implies criminal liability.”

There are 8,000 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Armenia. Hrach Keshishyan, head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses board, does not think the number of “witnesses” will increase after the registration.

“The registration has nothing to do with it,” he says.

The registration will allow the Jehovah’s Witnesses such rights as establishing places of worship, referred to by the group as “Kingdom Halls”.

The registration of the organization was severely criticized by famous Armenian artists who evaluated it as “disgrace” and “an anti-national step.”

Perch Zeytuntsyan, writer and publicist, considers the Jehovah’s witnesses a dangerous sect.

“In Armenia there are all the grounds for people to become sectarians: poverty, despair, but people should be conscious that a smart man would never turn to sects. The sectarians are ignoramuses, they are national traitors,” he said.

Hranush Kharatyan, head of the Government’s national minorities and religion department, is also displeased with the imperfection of the law.

“The law falls short of legal relations. The methods of practicing religion are not clarified. The law is not predictable in case of aggressive religious practice. It is vague what proselytizing implies and so on,” says Kharatyan.

She does not agree that Armenia was obliged to register Jehovah’s Witnesses in order to comply with CE mandates.

“The Council of Europe only proposes,” Kharatyan says. “The only thing we must do is the following: we refuse to do something and we substantiate our motives. And here the matter is to what extent the grounds are solid. If it is proved that the Jehovah’s Witnesses do damage to our national and social security, if it is thoroughly grounded, no organization can ever compel the registration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

Mikael Danielyan, head of the Helsinki Association, thinks that the registration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses does not necessarily imply that they are not going to have problems in Armenia.

“Armenia has simply tried to move out of the list of the countries that haven’t registered the witnesses (Iran, Iraq and Turkmenistan),” says the human rights activist.

“To register an organization does not mean that our authorities have grown pliant. After all, at the moment of the registration the members of the organization do time in prison (for refusal to do military service). I think that their suppression will continue.”

armenianow

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