Summary paragraph: Religious minority groups said they were concerned about the potential erosion of their rights through a legislative initiative on religious freedom proposed by the government and sent to the European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission) for review in November. Representatives of religious minorities said if the law passed as drafted, it would adversely impact freedom of religion for minority religious groups in the country. Human rights activists continued to express concern about the government’s concurrence with the AAC’s dissemination of teaching in schools that often equated AAC affiliation with national identity. According to minority religious groups and NGOs, government speech equating national identity to affiliation with the AAC continued to fuel discrimination against minority religious groups. NGOs and some religious groups also said the focus in school textbooks on the Bible and AAC traditions and language, such as “we the Armenians are Christian people,” and “thanks to the AAC, Christianity has become the inseparable part of the national identity of the Armenian people” showed government preference for the AAC. They also said other religious groups were sometimes characterized in disparaging or inaccurate ways. During the year religious minority groups did not report abuses during the military service of their religious community members, unlike in previous years. One group reported a “positive attitude” toward members of the evangelical Christian faith in the army, including from AAC chaplains. Minority Christian groups reported they had the freedom to worship provided they did so privately and discreetly on their own premises and in their community – keeping their activities low-profile and exercising self-censorship.
On June 1, the Ministry of Justice proposed a package of laws, called the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, to amend legislation on religious freedom. The ministry did not conduct prior consultations with religious organizations or the governmental Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities before proposing the legislation. Numerous members of religious minority groups and civil society organizations stated there were positive developments in the proposed legislation, including the removal of unclear registration requirements and the mention of “soul-hunting.” They expressed particular concern, however, about the apparent intention of the government to remove the AAC from being covered by the draft law. They also expressed concerns the draft law stipulated religious unions may receive funding from abroad and may not finance their spiritual centers and political parties located outside of the territory of the Republic of Armenia. Proposed government monitoring of religious groups and unclear articles in the draft pertaining to NGOs were other concerns.
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) reviewed the draft package of laws following an official request from human rights advocate Arman Tatoyan. The ODIHR opinion issued on September 29 noted the draft legislation contained some major improvements in terms of compliance with international human rights standards, including adoption of some of the key recommendations made in previous ODIHR-Venice Commission joint opinions on Armenian legislation pertaining to freedom of religion or belief. ODIHR stated, however, that further amendments were needed to ensure the draft’s full compliance with international standards and OSCE “human dimension” commitments. Key ODHIR recommendations included an explicit statement that the AAC must fall under the jurisdiction of the draft law; the replacement of “state security” with the term “public safety” to remove potential limitations on the freedom to manifest thought, conscience, and religion or belief; removal of the obligation for religious organizations to maintain records of their members; and the removal of the prohibition on foreign funding for religious organizations.
On November 30, following the ODIHR review, the Ministry of Justice presented to the religious community an updated draft of the legislative package. According to religious freedom experts and many members of the religious community, even though the updated package specifically included AAC as a subject of the law, in some respects the revised version was more problematic than the previous draft because it was clearly aimed at controlling religious organizations and limiting freedom of religion. According to the preliminary assessment by the Center for Religion and Law, a local NGO, the revised draft included many provisions stricken from previous drafts by the Venice Commission and ODIHR. The updated draft Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations included more than a dozen grounds (many of them vague and open for interpretation) for banning expression of freedom of religion, including if such expression undermined state security, weakened the country’s defense capacity, preached religious fanaticism, engaged in other illegal or immoral acts, was carried out for mercenary purposes, or occurred in the vicinity of educational facilities. The draft also banned foreign funding, included mandatory public reporting requirements and increased government supervision, with the possibility of suspending the organization for failure to comply with such reporting requirements, and numerous other provisions that critics said were excessive and restrictive. According to representatives of evangelical churches, such provisions could be selectively applied to target “unwanted” minority religious groups. The government sent the draft to the Venice Commission for an assessment in November.
Some human rights activists, religious minorities, and atheists continued to express concern over the government’s inclusion of the AAC in many areas of public life, and the public education system in particular, as well as its granting permission to the AAC to disseminate materials in schools with material equating AAC affiliation with the national identity.
Yezidi community representatives continued to report their dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.” In December 2016, the Sinjar Yezidi National Union NGO addressed an open letter to Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan voicing concern that the state violated the freedom of religion of Yezidi children by carrying out Christian indoctrination and conversion of the non-Christian population through the HAC course as a mandatory school subject. The Ministry of Education and Science stated, however, it did not receive any complaints against the teaching of the HAC course.
Several non-AAC religious groups said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools. For instance, representatives from the Word of Life Church said, “The 1,700-year activity of the Armenian Church is an integral part of the history of the Armenian people, so we have no objection to the teaching of the Armenian Church history in schools. At the same time, it is important that neutral and respectful attitudes toward other denominations be maintained, and pupils of different church affiliations not be subjected to preaching.” Others, however, including NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC publicly voiced concerns. There were reports of AAC clergy teaching the course in some schools and requiring visits to AAC churches as part of the course, without providing opportunities for discussion of other faiths or for students to visit non-AAC religious sites. According to the government, there were no AAC clergy members teaching the course during the 2016-17 academic year, only lay teachers; however, media reports stated that some AAC clergy continued to teach the HAC course. Reportedly teachers of Armenian language, literature, and history courses also organized visits to AAC religious sites. According to media reports, AAC clergy also visited state-funded kindergartens, including during celebrations of religious holidays, and organized visits of kindergarten classes to AAC churches.
Critics of the HAC course said it “constituted church indoctrination disguised as history.” NGOs and other religious groups cited the focus on the Bible and AAC traditions and language such as “we the Armenians are Christian people,” and “thanks to the AAC, Christianity has become the inseparable part of the national identity of the Armenian people” in fifth and sixth grade textbooks. They also said the HAC course sometimes characterized other religious groups in disparaging or inaccurate ways. For example, while describing Islam, the textbook includes the following, “Getting acquainted with the Bible, as well as the Jewish and Christian religions, Muhammad declared himself a prophet and beginning in 610, started to preach in the manner he understood and established a new religion.” NGOs also noted the eighth grade textbook presented the activities of Catholic missionaries in a negative light, including quotes such as “Catholic propaganda created especially horrible devastation in the Armenian communities in Europe.” NGO critics said the ninth grade book presented evangelical movements as a threat to the AAC, accusing other religious groups of “soul-hunting,” while the eleventh grade textbook states, “Armenians are Christian by faith and Apostolic by belief.”
On January 24, in a Facebook press conference with Radio Free Europe, Minister of Education Levon Mkrtchyan was asked about AAC preaching in schools and the requirement in the HAC course that graduates of high schools, including Yezidis and other non-Christians, participate in AAC national religious holidays and understand their meaning. In response, the minister quoted the article of the law stating the AAC had an exclusive right to preach on the territory of the country and minorities could preach within their own communities. The minister also said, “We are people living under the auspices of the AAC.” In a different video aired on May 29, the minister said those Yezidi community representatives whom he had met did not voice concerns about the HAC course, but rather, about the preservation of their language. The minister added he was prepared to incorporate information on Yezidis and Kurds in the schools where there are minorities “but for the entire Armenia, naturally not.”
On November 1, Epress.am, an independent online outlet focused on human rights reporting, published a story stating a professor of Armenian Language and Literature at the Russian-Armenian (Slavonic) State University had told her students she would conduct an exam at an AAC church and therefore all female students must cover their hair during the exam. Another student was removed from her class for saying he was an atheist.
Based on a Ministry of Education pilot program launched in 2012, school administrations had the option to include an additional course, entitled History of the AAC/Christian Education, in their curriculum for grades two through four. Once a school chose this option, the course became mandatory for students in those grades. During the year, 76 schools followed this option.
Human rights activists expressed concern about the impact of government statements and policies, including changes to the constitution in 2016, further linking the AAC with the state and potentially marginalizing religious minorities. For instance, Eduard Sharmazanov, the vice speaker of parliament from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, said in response to criticism of the AAC by a former official, “the only right investment in Armenia is to build a church … it's a good thing, what should the investors do? Should we let the cults build churches instead? Yes, the Apostolic Church is our only holy church, and, in fact, we need to increase the hours of Armenian Church History taught at schools, in addition, it should be taught both at the university level and in our own lives.” Responding to a journalist’s question about soldiers being forced to pray in the army, Sharmazanov responded, “They are not forced. That’s the right thing to do, and it should be done, that’s not a violation of rights. This is not prostitution or erotica. It is true that soldiers pray in the army, we ought to start doing the same in the parliament, and we must have our spiritual awakening everywhere.” In his remarks Sharmazanov also said, “Nation and church are united, as Armenian and Christian are synonymous,” and in reference to the AAC, he said, “This is our state Church.” On December 8, at the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the army’s chaplaincy program, Minister of Defense Vigen Sargsyan said, “The Church cannot be separate either from the state or the army. This is prescribed in our constitution, legislation, and most importantly, in the heart of every Armenian.”
Several minority religious groups reported their members preferred not to publicize their religious affiliation while in military service, although conscripts continued to be encouraged to declare their religion when beginning their service. There were no reports by religious minority groups of abuses during the military service of their community members connected to their faith; one group reported a positive attitude towards evangelical Christians in the army, including from AAC chaplains. According to the government, no religious groups other than the AAC presented requests to visit a military unit. The chaplaincy program, a joint Ministry of Defense-AAC initiative, continued to allow only AAC clergy to serve in the program.
On October 12, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been unjustly convicted for refusing to perform alternative service under military supervision and determined the government must provide conscientious objectors with “an alternative military service of a genuinely civilian nature.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses were in 2011 to two and half years in prison and released in 2013. The government implemented an alternative civilian service not controlled by the military later that year.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 161 of their members completed alternative civilian service for conscientious objection by the end of the year, up from 17 members in 2016. As of December, 105 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program. Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses said the state committee responsible for coordinating and reviewing the applications for alternative service continued to be cooperative, and the program worked well. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the directors of alternative civilian service locations had expressed their satisfaction with the program.
On October 11, during public hearings at the National Assembly, Avetik Ishkhanyan of the NGO Helsinki Committee asked Minister of Defense Sargsyan about atheists and non-AAC followers who were “forced to pray in the army.” The minister replied he was unaware of any case in which a soldier was forced to pray or be baptized. The minister said he would punish those who violated the law, while stating, “I consider an absolute the value that the Armenian Apostolic Church creates in our general system of values.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses said they continued to face difficulties in building places of worship because of interference of local officials throughout the country. According to Witnesses, representatives from mayors’ offices openly stated on numerous occasions they would not permit Jehovah’s Witnesses to build a place of worship in their town or city. In particular, Jehovah’s Witnesses encountered difficulty obtaining approval of the required architectural planning studies and in obtaining building and occupancy permits. At year’s end, Witnesses had three pending cases before the ECHR disputing the prohibition by the Yerevan City Municipality on building places of worship on land owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said they continued to pursue legal avenues for the protection of their rights and tried to maintain a dialogue with the government. They reported they continued to receive police protection while engaging in their public ministry both in Yerevan and in the regions and discerned a continued improved attitude on the part of government authorities toward their members.
According to various religious groups and NGOs advocating for religious tolerance, government rhetoric equating national identity to affiliation with the AAC continued to fuel discrimination against religious organizations other than the AAC. In a June 8 interview published in the Religions.am portal of religious news maintained by the NGO Collaboration for Democracy, the pastor of the Rhema Pentecostal Church, Karen Khachatryan, discussed the reasons behind what he said was the marginalization of religious organizations other than the AAC and their absence from public discourse. According to Khachatryan, the churches of the evangelical family remained outside the public eye due to a number of factors, including the role of the AAC, the biased attitude of the state, and unprofessional media. Other minority Christian groups reported they had the freedom to worship provided they did so discreetly and limited their activities to their own premises and community. They said attempting to expand beyond those premises or attempting to expand their existing membership through proselytizing could potentially lead to harassment or discrimination in school or the workplace. For this reason, the groups said, they kept their activities low-profile and exercised self-censorship.
The minister of foreign affairs initiated a conference on November 22 in Yerevan entitled, “Preventing and Countering Hate Crimes against Christians and Members of other Religious Groups – Perspectives from the OSCE and Beyond,” hosted by OSCE/ODIHR with the purpose of addressing persecution of Christians in the OSCE and elsewhere. The minister noted that Armenia was the “first country to adopt Christianity as a national state religion.”