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Armenia: Crackdown On Jehovah's Witnesses Strains Ties With Europe

Armenia's harsh treatment of a tiny religious minority is causing new strains in its relations with a key pan-European structure. The Council of Europe is expected tomorrow to issue a strong warning to Yerevan over its failure to legalize Jehovah's Witnesses and its continuing prosecution of young members of the denomination who refuse military service. Strasbourg officials say the practice runs counter to a key condition for Armenia's membership in the council. The Armenian authorities, for their part, say they remain committed to fulfilling their pledge to ensure the unfettered activities of all nontraditional religious groups.

Yerevan, 25 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- An 18-year-old resident of the northern Armenian city of Vanadzor has become the 23rd member of the Jehovah's Witnesses to serve a prison sentence for a religiously motivated refusal to perform compulsory military service.

A local court sentenced Artur Ghazarian to two years in jail last week, following what has become a familiar pattern in Armenia over the past decade.

About 100 young men, most of them Jehovah's Witnesses, have faced criminal prosecution for violating an Armenian law that requires all male citizens to serve in the armed forces for two years. The strict legislation, which is a result of the Caucasus country's unresolved territorial conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan, has prompted strong criticism from international human rights organizations.

Armenia undertook to enact legislation entitling conscientious objectors to an alternative civilian service within three years of its accession to the Council of Europe in January 2001. Armenian officials say they are working on a corresponding draft law and will meet the deadline for its passage. In the meantime, they are continuing to enforce the existing legislation, which does not exempt anyone from military service on religious grounds -- a stance denounced by Council of Europe officials.

The council's representative in Yerevan, Natalya Vutova, said the continuing imprisonment of Jehovah's Witnesses contradicts the letter and spirit of Armenia's obligations. "We are well aware that there are still prosecutions going on. We are receiving updated information on a regular basis. And, of course, it is against the obligations undertaken by Armenia when it joined the organization," Vutova said.

Vutova also made it clear that conscientious objectors must be allowed to perform a distinctly "civilian service" and not be placed in special barracks inside army units, as is stipulated by a draft law pending debate in the Armenian parliament this autumn. Under that bill, endorsed by the Armenian Defense Ministry, Jehovah's Witnesses would perform only civilian tasks for the army and would not have to carry weapons.

Members of the evangelical Christian denomination say even that is against their absolute rejection of violence -- one of their fundamental beliefs.

The Jehovah's Witnesses, founded in the United States in 1872, has a worldwide membership of about 6 million. The refusal of Jehovah's Witnesses to bear arms, salute the flag, or participate in secular government has generated resentment from some, as has their practice of door-to-door proselytizing. Their strong opposition to military service is the main reason why the Armenian authorities still deny Jehovah's Witnesses an official registration that would enable them to operate legally.

As the influential deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament, Tigran Torosian, put it bluntly, "Jehovah's Witnesses must bring their statutes into conformity with Armenian law in order to be able to operate freely."

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will likely express concern at this policy when it discusses a report on Armenia's compliance with its membership obligations tomorrow. The Strasbourg-based body, which promotes human rights and democracy, is already losing patience with Yerevan's reluctance to abolish the death penalty unconditionally. The dispute over religious freedom may further complicate Armenia's integration into various European structures.

Jehovah's Witnesses, meanwhile, say the country's admission into the council has not made their life easier. Hrach Keshishian is the head of the group's Armenian branch. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said: "Membership in the Council of Europe has not brought about any change. The authorities continue to jail conscientious objectors, saying that they must serve [in the army] as long as there is no law on alternative service."

Keshishian said the illegal status of his organization means that Jehovah's Witnesses are unable to hold large gatherings and often have their religious literature confiscated. One of Keshishian's deputies narrowly avoided imprisonment last year after being charged with "luring" children into the denomination.

Jehovah's Witnesses, who claim to have around 20,000 members in Armenia, also have to grapple with hostile public opinion formed by the semiofficial Armenian Apostolic Church and the local media. The dominant perception is that it is an anti-Christian "sect," lavishly funded from abroad with the aim of undermining traditional Armenian values.

Many Armenians agree with the government that dodging the military draft while their country remains technically at war with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region amounts to high treason. Alternative service, they argue, is a luxury that Armenia -- small, landlocked, and surrounded by unfriendly neighbors -- can ill afford.

Armenia's nationalist prime minister, Andranik Markarian, referred primarily to Jehovah's Witnesses when he advocated last week tougher measures against "dangerous sects engaging in illegal activities." Speaking at the first meeting of his recently formed Council on Religious Affairs, Markarian warned: "We will not allow those sects to undermine state security. We will not allow them to engage in proselytism."

He then indicated that the government should rein in nontraditional religious groups, even if that contradicts Council of Europe commitments. "Security of the state and the people is more important than some [international] treaties. So the matter will be at the center of our attention," Markarian said.

Markarian's consultative council comprises high-ranking government officials, as well as senior representatives of the Apostolic Church and the much smaller Armenian Catholic and Protestant churches. Also among its members is Deputy Prosecutor-General Zhirayr Kharatian, whose membership underscores the important role of Armenian law-enforcement agencies in religious policy.

There are more than 50 officially registered religious organizations in Armenia. The ancient Apostolic Church, to which more than 90 percent of Armenians belong, is the biggest and most powerful. Its privileged status is upheld by an Armenian law on religious activities.

The church, which celebrated the 1,700th anniversary of converting Armenia to Christianity last year, is widely credited with preserving Armenia's cultural heritage during centuries of foreign oppression.

Mindful of its positive image, the church jealously reacts to the spread of groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses and supports tough government action against them. Its top clerics could have hardly received a better message from Markarian.