ARMENIA – Legal threat to Christian activity
Christian groups in Armenia are concerned over a hardening of official attitudes towards non-orthodox church groups as the draft of a new religious law is unveiled.
The proposed new Religion Law – and amendments to other existing legislation – is of greatest concern, particularly sections relating to 'improper proselytising' and the compulsory registration of communities with more than 25 adult members. The proposed crime of 'improper proselytism' or 'soul hunting' would carry a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment. Groups refusing to register would face fines of up to 600 times the minimum monthly wage.
Some elements of the Christian community say these proposed changes represent a significant hardening in attitudes towards religious minorities and non-orthodox church groups, and may be used to repress or curb their activities, according to Forum 18 news service.
The drafts of these laws were posted on the Justice Ministry's website on July 12. The Government says it is currently inviting comment on the drafts.
The proposed laws come against a backdrop of reports of increasing religious intolerance and mounting pressure on non-Orthodox Armenian Christians – from officials, media and the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church. Forum 18 sources suggest that the Armenian Apostolic Church, which it describes as being seen as a 'socio-political organisation' with close ties to the Government, has been involved in drafting the restrictive clauses. The media have falsely described some churches as 'sects'.
A case cited as an example of this harassment is the criminal trial of Pentecostal pastor Vladimir Bagdasaryan from Sevan, a city in Gegharkunik province. He is on trial for 'obstructing the lawful professional activities of a journalist' – after he resisted a TV crew's attempts to enter and film his church without his permission. His defence team's closing address was scheduled for a hearing on July 13 and a verdict is now awaited.
Pastor Vladimir told Forum 18 that he expects to be convicted and fined. Even though the prosecution has suggested he could be pardoned under a presidential amnesty and not made to pay a fine, the pastor is concerned he would still have a criminal record. His supporters say the case should never have come to trial.
Armenia is still officially 94 per cent Christian. Of this figure, 84 per cent are Orthodox, according to Operation World.
(Sources: Forum 18, Operation World)
• Pray for unity among the church in Armenia. Pray that Christians of all denominations will recognise their nation's rich Christian heritage and work together to build God's kingdom.
• Pray that draft religious laws will be amended so that Armenian legislation will uphold religious freedom rather than promote religious intolerance.