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Caucasus: Dec '10/Jan '11

Representatives of Armenian evangelical churches see benefit of IWPR-sponsored debates on religious intolerance.
By IWPR
  • Leaders of evangelical churches felt that the round table helped them to bring to the fore concerns over intolerance and discrimination. (Photo: IWPR)
    Leaders of evangelical churches felt that the round table helped them to bring to the fore concerns over intolerance and discrimination. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Experts at the round table say Armenian authorities, media and society have an intolerant attitude towards minority faiths. (Photo: IWPR)
    Experts at the round table say Armenian authorities, media and society have an intolerant attitude towards minority faiths. (Photo: IWPR)

Representatives of minority faiths in Armenia have urged IWPR to stage more round tables on the problems they face following a wide-ranging discussion on the subject.

The January 27 event - attended by clerics, rights activists, journalists, government officials and concerned citizens – focused on reported violations of the rights of minority faiths; discrimination against them; and, more generally, their role in Armenian society.

Armenia ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 2002, committing itself to respecting citizens’ religious freedom. Nonetheless, many religious minorities say they are discriminated against, and that the Apostolic Church – which is followed by almost all Armenians – has an unfair advantage.
Stepan Danielyan, head of the Cooperation for Democracy Centre, said that attempts by parliament to restrict the rights of smaller Christian groups were very worrying.

In March 2009, parliament passed a first reading of a bill which would have banned “proselytising” and attempted to define Christianity as a belief in the Holy Trinity, which would have excluded Jehovah’s Witnesses being registered as Christians. The project was dropped after a wave of opposition.

Avetik Ishkhanyan, chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, opened the IWPR discussion by setting out the problems faced by religious organisations in Armenia. He said the Armenian authorities, media and society have an intolerant attitude towards minority faiths.

“They are vulnerable, there is no tolerance of them. The media use the word sect to describe them, which has an insulting connotation in Armenia,” he said. “The ruling political parties and opposition have a negative attitude towards representatives of religious organisations, except for atheists and followers of Armenian Apostolic Church.”

Yerevan Evangelical Church pastor Levon Partakchyan spoke about the unfair advantage the Armenian Apostolic Church had over other religious groups. “For instance, they forbid us from preaching in prisons, but representatives of Armenian Apostolic Church can do so,” he said.

Vardan Astsatryan, head of the government’s department for ethnic minorities and religious affairs, admitted that problems raised by experts and representatives of religious groups do exist.

“Of course, there should be legislative amendments – however one cannot speak of the total absence of tolerance. Here, we should speak of the level and extent of tolerance,” Astsatryan said.

Leaders of evangelical churches felt the round table assisted them in their bid to bring to the fore concerns over intolerance and discrimination.

Samvel Navoyan, secretary of the Armenian evangelical churches cooperation group, said, “The discussion was extremely necessary. It raised questions that urgently need to be discussed. In my opinion, the most useful part was the discussion about freedom of conscience legislation. I expect further discussions organised by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on this specific problem.”

Rubik Pahlevanyan of the Armenian Evangelical-Baptist Church said, “Discussion of any problem is welcomed and useful in Armenia. The church-to-church discussion was very useful. I suggest organising smaller discussions on specific problems in the future.”  

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