| By Vahan Ishkhanyan|
Special from Institute for War and
Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia
say they will take the government to court if it refuses yet again to grant them
The minority Christian group submitted its latest application
for registration Monday. 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 organization 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 "sympathizers" or
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 afoul 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 (the Institute for War and Peace
Reporting, where this story first appeared) that the Jehovah's Witnesses were
denied official status previously because of their proselytizing, 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
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.
not all ordinary Armenians agree. Arpi Voskanyan, 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.
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 Voskanyan.
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.
September 2002, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly expressly demanded
that Armenia recognize the movement as a "legitimate religious organization".
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 proselytizing and "other destructive activities"
by religious organizations. The commission did not specify which groups it was
referring to, but it clearly had the Jehovah's Witnesses in mind.
Asryan, 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 Danielyan,
a human rights activist who leads the Helsinki Association of Armenia said: "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 Markaryan, who was sent to trial on charges of proselytizing
among children without their parents' consent. The case passed through every stage
of Armenia's judicial system, but ultimately fell through and Markaryan was acquitted.
"The court made the wrong decision," said an unrepentant Asryan.
The human rights commissioner went on to accuse the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, of putting pressure on the trial judges and acting
like "a new Politburo for Armenia".
Kristina Martirosyan, human
rights officer with the OSCE's Yerevan office, said her organization had actually
exerted little influence. "The OSCE has sent innumerable letters about human
rights violations to the Armenian government," she said. "But those
letters fall on deaf ears and change nothing whatsoever."
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 Markaryan
said. "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, 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
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.
their own business," said one pensioner. "All I want is for them to
stop pestering me in the street and knocking on my door."
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