Essay: Late night lessons in fear, Armenia

Essay: Late night lessons in fear

Opinion by Vahan Ishkhanyan

Four interrogate one. This is not a Customs service, where a
suspicious passenger is asked questions; neither is it a police
department. This the `Late in the Night’ program at Armenia TV that
would more fit to be called `Late Inquisition’. Two journalists, a
clergyman and the fourth a nationalist I don’t know, interrogate a
Buddhist. A discussion in its form, the program holds no discussion,
but questioning and charges. Gagik and Nelli are journalists, but
there appear no intentions to investigate or inform – only to accuse
and intimidate.

The nationalist says: `Any sect is an enemy to our state and people.’
Asked if the program’s guest is `his enemy’, the nationalist answers
`Of course.’

Armenia TV seems to side with KGB methods for its `talk show’

The guest, Artashes Gazaryan, is a Buddhist, one of only about four or
five in Armenia. He has created a website () to inform
others of his religion. Among other information, the site contains
information about the possibility of inviting a Buddhist teacher to

The KGB, through the face of Armenia TV, discovered the website and
tricked Gazaryan to appear. Rather than a discussion of Buddhist
belief, Gazaryan was asked: `Are you baptized?’, `How were you married
if you are not a Christian?’ `What means did you use to get to
Thailand?’ and string of other questions apparently aimed at
collecting information for building a case against him that would
inflame other nationalists.

His inquisitors implied that Gazaryan’s parents had failed in their
religious duty, by raising a son to become something other than
Armenian Apostolic Christian.

I watch and am reminded that the KGB used to interrogate dissidents
about how they got `anti-Soviet’ literature, whom they gave the books
to read, why they read `different’ books or held `different’ beliefs.

Fearful of the KGB, people were even afraid of thinking in Stalin
times, but at least the Soviet state provided its suspects a formal
defense attorney. The TV version National Security Service puppets of
`Late in the Night’ attacked un-resisted.

The interrogation ends up with accusatory conclusions in which on
nationalist lectures that `plurality of beliefs leads to the
deterioration of the state and is called high treason’.

Gazaryan humbly answers all the questions telling that he has used his
own means to get to Thailand, trying to turn the questioning into a
discussion, to do what he was invited for: `Let’s view it from another
point: what defines one’s belief and why does a person find a
different religion or other postulates?’

Gagik has none of it, and suggests that religious cults in Armenia buy
belief with promises of rice and butter.

The hosts grill the Buddhist about how he could afford to travel to
Thailand and I watch thinking that those interested in other people’s
income would ask the same questions posed by the network to state
officials who wear $5,000 suits, travel to Monte Carlo casinos and are
then appear before these same journalists in flattering interviews
with soft and irrelevant questions.

May be the Buddhist is a good occasion to appear as a tough journalist
and to compensate for the flattery he manifests to the officials like
the man who revenges for outside humiliation by beating his
defenseless wife at home.

Gazaryan tries to squeeze in a point about free speech. `A man meets
another man. They talk in the kitchen. That frequently happens. How
will you be regulating the conversation, what the people think and how
come they think in different ways?’

Nelli responds with disparage: `That’s called European values,
globalization’ – suggesting apparently that globalization and European
values are the same thing and, as it seems, are at odds with being
Armenian. One can conclude from her definition that thinking means not
being Armenian. And if she succeeds in her efforts to keep Armenian
identity by that means then people willing to think will stop being
Armenian. And I believe there will be lots of such people.

Nelli begins defining a criminal punishment for those who think: `How
are going to announce the lectures [of the invited teacher]? You are
not a registered organization, are you? If you agitate for it, spread
information about the lecture then that will be interpreted as an act
prosecuted by the criminal law.’

If I didn’t see Nelli, I would think she is a woman at least beyond
60, who has been closed up in a basement for the last 20 years of her
life unaware of the Soviet Union’s demise. Her understanding of what
is criminally prosecuted comes from the Soviet times, when anti-Soviet
agitation and propaganda were criminally prosecuted and even tougher
when an unregistered organization was created for that purposes.

Meanwhile Father Ghevond confuses everything – ascribing Bhagavad-Gita
and the institute of gurus to Buddhism. Artashes asks not to confuse
religions and explains that Buddhism is not a sect, but one of the
three major religions of the world. But Father Ghevond is not
interested in the difference of religions, just the number of his
congregation and says everybody, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and
Artashes, are his lost sheep. (The `sheep’, one might argue, are the
source of income for the Father; he sanctifies homes, baptizes,
provides burial services, sacrifices, that are all sources of income
and when `sheep’ are lost, incomes drop . . .)

Artashes calls for religious tolerance.

But with tolerance plurality flourishes and competition of
beliefs. And believers who distinguish Bhagavad-Gita from Buddhism
will have the opportunity to freely demonstrate. As long as there is a
single control, the priest, the journalists and the nationalist remain
united. And safe. Sound familiar?

The nationalist criticizes the authorities of the Apostolic Church for
not fighting properly against sects and refers to the former
Catholicos: `I don’t think any sectarian would organize any activity
like that in Vazgen’s times [Catholicos of All Armenians Vazgen I in
1955-1994].’ Father Ghevond replies: `They did – under the supervision
of the KGB.’ So, it appears that the supervision of the KGB is
lacking. Armenia TV fills the gap setting supervision under the name
of the program.

And Armenia TV is not the only one in setting KGB-style supervision. I
recently heard the former minister of culture Hakob Movses stating on
Shoghakat TV: `Sects are traitors of the nation. They are considered
traitors also in Germany as well.’ He is confident – no German will
hear him and respond saying `Don’t lie and don’t try to get fascism
back we have got rid of at the cost of significant deprivations and
shame.’ While Armenians do not reply and let the lessons of fascism
the Germans and Europe have passed be repeated here [in Armenia]. And
so, frequently lies and slander against religious organizations are
spread on air. And violence never comes late.

Shoghakat TV belongs to the Apostolic Church and its attempts to
create monopoly in the religious field by defaming competing
organizations are understandable. Less clear, though, is why Armenia
TV, whose shareholders include American Armenian Gerard Cafesjian,
whose money was earned in a free country, allows itself to be used
against freedom in Armenia.

I visited the website today. There was a new text
added there on a red background – the symbol of fear: `The authors of
this site do not intend to convince people in their truthfulness, the
more so to create a religious organization’, and so on. In a word, a
feeling of threat, fear. Nelli in her basement, the priest protected
by the state, and the nationalist and his faulty allegiance have
reached their aim. And more importantly, the aim of those who put
questions in their mouths.

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