Armenia Opens Door To Jehovah’s Witnesses


Institute for War and peace reporting (IWPR)
29 Oct. 2004

Official sanctioning of a group seen as alien to Armenian religious
tradition gets stormy public reception.

By Zhanna Alexanian in Yerevan

The long-delayed registration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a legal
religious organisation has fulfilled one of Armenia’s international
obligations, but has met bitter hostility from many individuals and
church leaders.

After nine years and 14 applications, the western church finally
received legal status on October 12, in a country where the
three-million-strong population belongs overwhelmingly to the Armenian
Apostolic Church.

By approving the move, the government met one of the civil rights
requirements of the Council of Europe, CoE, which Armenia joined
in 2001. Just a day before the October 8 registration, the CoE
parliamentary assembly passed a resolution calling for speedier
progress on the matter.

Jehovah’s Witnesses – who say they have long faced persecution from
the Armenian authorities, especially the military – welcomed the move.
Hratch Keshishian, the leader of the group within Armenia, said the
government had taken a “courageous step”.

Government officials said the Jehovah’s Witnesses had won the right
to registration. “After studying the documents that were submitted,
we saw that the [previous] grounds for denying registration had been
eliminated,” said Tigran Mukuchian, the deputy justice minister. “This
time they are in full conformity with the law, and the state body
responsible for registration simply fulfilled its duties.”

However, many people, particularly those connected with the Apostolic
Church, remain opposed to the presence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses,
saying that Armenian society and even national security are at risk.

Claiming six million adherents around the world, the Jehovah’s
Witnesses say they have 8,000 baptised members among a total of about
20,000 followers in Armenia. Keshishian said he doubted registration
would lead to any rise in these numbers.

But in a society historically centred around a single faith, the
level of suspicion about proselytising newcomers is high, and the
hostility is expressed in often virulent terms.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have run into trouble both from the established
church, which opposes what it sees as attempts by Christian groups from
the West to recruit among its flock; and from the military, which until
this year was inflexible on the issue of conscription. As pacifists,
Jehovah’s Witnesses are opposed to serving in any country’s army.

The Armenian church leader, Catholicos Karekin the Second, called
the Jehovah’s Witnesses a “totalitarian sect”, while Vahram Melikian,
spokesman for the Holy See at Echmiadzin, the seat of the Apostolic
Church, said they were “anti-Christian”.

Melikian attacked the current law on freedom of conscience and
religious organisations, saying it would “bring disaster” because it
failed to make religious groups sufficiently accountable.

The animosity expressed by senior clerics was echoed by writer Perch
Zeytuntsyan, who said, “Poverty, hopelessness – all the conditions
exist for people to become sect members. However, they should realise
that no intelligent person will turn to a sect. The members are
ignorant people, traitors to the nation.”

Galust Sahakian, leader of the ruling Republican Party, opposed the
decision to register the Jehovah’s Witnesses, saying that adhering to
European standards should not “atomise our national values”, he said.

The Republican Party’s youth wing, Baze, has opened a hotline for
anyone wishing to report alleged illegal activities by Jehovah’s

The government insists that Armenia has nothing to fear from the group.

“We should not follow the path of banning [them], but should try to
give them a chance. After that we should set conditions, follow them
up, and if they violate the law, we should be able to stop their
activities within the framework of the legislation,” said Prime
Minister Andranik Margarian.

He note that some three dozen other minority religious groups have
been granted permits, including some that are perceived as more
controversial than the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Mukuchian said it bringing the Jehovah’s Witnesses within the legal
framework would make it easier to prosecute if there were any breaches
of the law banning proselytism.

The head of the government department for national minorities and
religion, Hranush Kharatian, told IWPR she did not understand the
fuss. Instead of calling for a clampdown on the Jehovah’s Witnesses,
parliament should “create a legislative basis for introducing
democratic values in our country.

“The point is, they were functioning in the country irrespective of
whether they were officially recognised by the government or not.”

Kharatian denied that pressure from the CoE was the reason why
registration was granted.

“The Council of Europe only makes suggestions. We only have to
say that we are rejecting something for a good reason. But we are
not doing that,” said Kharatian. “If there is proof that Jehovah’s
Witnesses are damaging our national or public or social security,
no international organisation can oblige us to register them.”

Mikael Danielian, chairman of the Helsinki Association of Armenia
and one of the country’s most prominent human rights activists, said
that registration would not mean an end to difficulties faced by the
Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The group’s opposition to compulsory military service is a particular
flashpoint, he said.

“At the very moment of registration, there are members of the
organisation in prisons,” he said. “I believe there will be pressure
upon them.”

Alternative military service was introduced in Armenia in July 2004,
allowing those who refuse to carry arms on religious grounds to apply
to the army authorities for some other form of duty.

Since 1995, about 200 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been detained by the
authorities as conscientious objectors. Keshishian said 11 people
had been given prison sentences, but he hoped that those still in
jail would now be freed.

“The young men declared in the courtroom that they were ready to do an
alternative form of working service, but would not go into the army,”
said Keshishian.

Arthur Martirosian, a spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, denied
that the group forced its members to make the choice, “To go to the
army or refuse to do so, to accept alternative service or not, is a
personal decision for every young man. These matters have nothing to
do with the organisation.”

Zhanna Alexanian is a reporter with the weekly.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress