Religion

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Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application

Article 41 of the constitution states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion”. It is stipulated that this right “shall include the free-dom to change one’s religion or beliefs and the freedom, either alone or in community with others in public or in private to manifest religion or beliefs in preaching, church ceremonies, other rituals of worship or in other forms”. Under article 77, the incitement of religious hatred is prohibited.[1]

Article 17 of the constitution establishes a separation between “religious organisations” and the state. However, article 18 recognises “the exclusive mission of the Armenian Apo-stolic Church (AAC) as a national church in the spiritual life, development of the national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia”.

Apart from the constitution, the other fundamental source of law relevant to religious liberty is the “Law of the Republic of Armenia on the Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Organisations” (1991) (LRAFCRO 1991). Section seven provides that a registered religious group may exercise the following rights: “to rally their faithful around them”; “to satisfy the religious-spiritual needs of their faithful”; “to perform religious services, rites, and ceremonies”; “to establish groups for religious instruction aimed at training members”; “to engage in theological, religious, and historical and cultural studies”; “to train members of clergy or for scientific and pedagogical purposes”; “to obtain and utilise objects of religious significance”; “to make use of news media in accordance with the law”; “to establish ties with religious organisations in other countries”; and “to get involved in charity”. On the other hand, proselytism is explicitly prohibited by section eight, if it goes beyond the activities specified in section seven.

Both the question of proselytism and the preferential treatment of the AAC have often been seen as problematic by other churches, religious organisations and NGOs within the country. While church and state are separate in Armenia, section 17 of the LRAFCRO 1991, like the constitution, gives a special status to the AAC which other religious com- munities do not enjoy.[2]

Registration is not required by law for religious groups. However, registration gives religious groups legal recognition and there are no legal provisions which set out the rights of unregistered groups. The prerequisites for registration are specified in section five of the LRAFCRO 1991. In order to register as a legal entity, a religious community must satisfy the following criteria: it must be based on “historically recognised holy scripture”; its doctrines must form part of the “international contemporary religious-ecclesiastical communities”; it must be “free from materialism and [be] intended for purely spiritual goals”; it must have at least 50 members. These registration requirements do not apply to religious organisations which are related to groups that are already recognised as national minorities.

The 2007 “Law of the Republic of Armenia regarding the relationship between the Republic of Armenia and the Holy Apostolic Armenian Church” gives the AAC the automatic right to place representatives in hospitals, orphanages, boarding schools, military units, and places of detention. Other religious groups who wish to minister in these institutions must obtain express permission from the head of the given institution.[3]

During the period under review, draft changes were proposed to the law on religious freedom. An early draft law was tentatively welcomed by minority religious groups and civil society organisations. There was support for the proposed amendments to the ban on proselytising and  the removal of certain registration requirements for religious organisations that had been felt to be unclear. However, concerns were raised that the AAC was exempt from the draft law. A new draft was put forward in November 2017. Although the AAC was now subject to the new law, minority religious groups and civil society organisations raised fresh concerns about the proposed draft on the grounds that it would actually increase state control of religious organisations and further limit religious liberty.[4]

In March 2018, the Council of Europe evaluated the new draft law amending the LRAFCRO 1991 as a “welcome improvement”, even though objections remained. The statement issued by the Council of Europe noted that the non-mandatory character of state registration for religious organisations was not yet stated explicitly. Furthermore, it encouraged the Armenian legislature to provide objective justification for the preferential treatment of the AAC. It also argued that registration requirements for religious organisations should not be too burdensome and be brought in line with those applicable to NGOs. At the time of writing, no further changes had yet been brought into effect.[5]

Some minority Christian groups felt that their right to freedom of worship was significantly impeded by the ban on proselytising. They also tended to say that they practised their religion discreetly, refrained from public articulations of their faith and preferred to resolve disputes with public authorities and others quietly and without public confrontation.[6]

By contrast, while they have often reported incidents of harassment, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have also been prepared to voice concerns publically and to litigate in order to enforce their religious rights. In October 2017 they obtained a judgement in their favour from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). In Adyan and Others v. Armenia, the court held that four Jehovah’s witnesses had been unjustly sentenced to prison for refu- sing to perform the alternative to military service because they objected to the fact that the only alternative service was itself under military supervision. The ECtHR ruled that Armenia had failed to provide them with a genuine alternative civilian service.[7]

Some activists, members of minority religions and NGOs felt that the AAC’s right to provide teaching materials in schools had a negative impact on freedom of religion and on the respect accorded to other beliefs. Particular concern was raised about the way these materials identified membership of the AAC with true Armenian national identity. Concerns were also raised about some of the presentations of other forms of Christianity and other faiths in the standard materials on the national curriculum. It was reported that teachers of the AAC history course became more respectful of other religions after these concerns had been expressed publically, both nationally and internationally.[8]

Incidents

Pope Francis visited the country briefly in June 2016. His speech at Yerevan caused controversy in Turkey because he acknowledged the Armenian genocide. In the Apostolic church in Etchmiadzin, he praised Armenia for becoming the first country to make Christianity the state religion (in AD 301) and for keeping the faith alive in the dark times of history. Catholicism is one of the minority forms of Christianity in Armenia. The Pope urged all Christians to unite and to prevent religion from being misused.[9]

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in 2016 there were several cases of physical and verbal harassment of their members while they were engaging in their public ministry. However, the prevalence of this intimidation appeared to diminish in the reporting period. Although there have been a few recent instances of verbal attacks, there have been no recent physical attacks.[10] Other minority religions continued to report biased and inaccurate media coverage of their existence and activities. However a slight improvement was also noted, especially in online media sources. There was also a perception that members of minority religions were expected to conform to a certain extent with the dominant form of Christianity in certain public institutions.[11]

There is a community of around 35,000 Yazidis. They have been settled in the Armenian southern Caucasus for over 100 years. Recently, Yazidis in Iraq were specifically targeted by Daesh (ISIS) and either slaughtered or forced into sex sla- very. Many Yazidis from Iraq fled to Armenia for refuge. Since January 2016 the Armenian government has contributed $100,000 to the UNHCR to support the resettlement of Yazidis from Sinjar in northern Iraq. It is reported that “integration efforts continue to be a challenge for the authorities, balancing complaints from both [existing Armenian and newly arrived Yazidi] communities”.[12] The world’s largest Yazidi temple has been under construction in Armenia since 2016. The complex, which is about 20 miles from the capital, will include a conference hall, a seminary and museum.[13]

The Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan continues to accuse the state of Armenia of wide-scale vandalism and destruction of Azeri cultural heritage in the contested territories between both countries.[14] There have been meetings between religious authorities of both coun- tries, which have been mediated by Russia.[15]

Prospects for freedom of religion

Several concerns about religious freedom in Armenia remain, such as the restrictions on the activities of minority religions, especially the ban on proselytising, which many relate to the dominant position of the AAC in the country. However, this issue is a subject of live public debate and there are indications of greater freedoms for religious minorities, as well as positive acts of welcome for persecuted religious minorities.

Endnotes / Sources

[1] Constitution of Armenia https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Armenia_2015 lang=en (accessed 30th March 2018).

[2] Law of the Republic of Armenia on the Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Organisations from 1991 http://www.parliament.am/legislation.php?sel=show&ID=2041&lang=eng (accessed 20th March 2018).

[3] Law of the Republic of Armenia regarding the relationship between the Republic of Armenia and the Holy Apostolic Armenian Church from 2007 www.legislationline.org/download/action/download/ id/7241/file/Armenia_Law_State%20and%20Holy%20Apostolic%20Church_2007_en.pdf (accessed 30th March 2018).

[4] For a further discussion see Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, ‘Armenia’, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, U.S. State Department, https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiou-sfreedom/index.htm#wrapper, (accessed 14th June 2018).

[5] Statement by the Council of Europe’s Directorate of Communications, 19th March 2018, http://hetq.am/eng/news/86710/council-of-europe-new-draft-law-on-freedom-of-conscience-and-religious-organisa-tions-in-armenia-is-an-improvement-but-concerns-remain.html (accessed 30th March 2018).

[6] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, ‘Armenia’, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, U.S. State Department, https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper, (accessed 14th June 2018).

[7] ‘European Court of Human Rights upholds the rights of conscientious objectors in Armenia’, Jehovah’s Witnesses, 16th October 2017 https://www.jw.org/en/news/legal/by region/armenia/ECHR-upholds-ri- ghts-20171016/ (accessed 13th June 2018)

[8] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, ‘Armenia’, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, U.S. State Department, https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper, (accessed 14th June 2018).

[9] ‘Pope Denounces Armenian Genocide during visit to Yerevan’, Guardian, 24th June 2016, https://www. theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/24/pope-francis-denounces-armenian genocide-during-visit-to-ye- revan (accessed 13th June 2018)

[10] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, ‘Armenia’, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, U.S. State Department, https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper, (accessed 30th March 2018).

[11] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, ‘Armenia’, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, U.S. State Department, https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper, (accessed 30th March 2018)

[12] ‘After Long Trek to Armenia, Iraq’s Yazidi families struggle to fit in’, Reuters, 30th April 2017,  https:// www.reuters.com/article/us-armenia-yazidis/after-long-trek-to-armenia-iraqs-yazidi families-strug- gle-to-fit-in-idUSKBN17V0TN (accessed 14th June 2018)

[13] ‘World’s largest Yazidi temple under construction in Armenia’, Guardian, 25th July 2016 https://www. theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/25/worlds-largest-yazidi-temple-under construction-in-armenia (accessed 14th June 2018)

[14] ‘Baku: Armenia responsible for vandalism against Azerbaijan’s cultural heritage’, APA, 27th March 2018 http://en.apa.az/nagorno_karabakh/baku-armenia-responsible-for-acts-of-vandalism-against-azerbai-jani-cultural-monuments.html (accessed 31st March 2018).

[15] Farid Akbarov ‘Allahshukur Pashazade: “We offered to hold meeting of religious leaders on the Azer-baijan-Armenia border”(Interview)’, APA, 9th September 2017 http://en.apa.az/nagorno_karabakh/al-lahshukur-pashazade-we-offered-to-hold-meeting-of religious-leaders-on-the-azerbaijan-armenia-bor-der-interview.html (accessed 31st March 2018).

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