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Karabakh: Religion and the Army

Nagorny Karabakh debates what freedoms to allow its new religious minorities.
By Ashot Beglarian

Nagorny Karabakh is getting used to religious minorities, but the relationship is a difficult one and three men belonging to foreign Christian churches have ended up in jail for refusing to do military service.


This has raised the issue of whether alternative military service on grounds of conscience should be made legal in the unrecognised republic.


A recent round table in Stepanakert succeeded in getting people of different views on these issues to discuss them, although two minority faiths, Pentecostalists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, did not attend.


The representatives of the religious minorities complained about the use of the word “organisation” or “sect” to describe them and said that they were unhappy that they were not allowed to register as churches.


“We are God’s church and when we meet we only want to feed ourselves and others with God’s Word,” said Garnik Abreyan, who represents the International Union of Evangelical Churches and recently settled in Karabakh.


There are estimated to be more than 1200 members of the new churches in Karabakh, which has an official population of around 100,000.


Albert Voskanian, a Karabakh human rights activist who convened the meeting. said that despite the adoption of a law on religious freedom in March 1997, religious minorities met with intolerance in Karabakh.


In particular, two Jehovah’s Witnesses and one Baptist were sent to jail for refusing to serve in the army.


There was much discussion about how the new churches had arrived in Karabakh when fighting was still going on and had been regarded with suspicion by locals, who thought they were threatening social stability by the refusal of many of their adherents to take an oath, take up arms and serve in the army.


“We can define attitudes to alternative service by judging whether a person is a real believer, whether he is ready to go through more serious trials than those of the army because of his belief or whether he is simply shirking service and its difficulties,” said Abreyan.


Aveg Avanesian, who is now 19, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for refusing to do his military service. Armen Grigorian, also 19, was given a two-year sentence in June for desertion. He is now serving the remainder of his sentence in his native Armenia. This month, Gagik Mirzoyan was given a two-year sentence for the same offence.


Sociologist David Karabekian said that the religious minorities were not being persecuted or actively obstructed by the Karabakh authorities.


“It is more a question of the legal aspect of the activity of non-traditional confessions and how religious organisations should behave,” said Karabekian. “The issue is that there is no law in the Nagorny Karabakh republic which regulates the activity of religious organisations.”


Karabekian said some are worried that if a law is passed which defines these groups as religious rather than social organisations, there will be a massive influx of foreign evangelists into Nagorny Karabakh.


Karabekian suggested that Karabakh should follow the example of Great Britain and Greece, where religious freedom is enshrined in law but there is an established church with deep historic roots, “For Armenians the church is something more than a spiritual institution and so the Armenian Apostolic Church ought to have a special status and not be put on the same level as other religions.”


The Armenian church has chaplains in almost all units of the Karabakh army.


Voskanian is proposing the introduction of a law on alternative service, analogous to the one in Armenia – adopted after Armenia joined the Council of Europe.


“Experience shows that repression of religious minorities not only fails to ‘uproot’ them, but actually strengthens them by creating an image for them of ‘martyrs for the faith’,” said Voskanian.


Supporters of alternative service say it would bring the unrecognised republic into line with other countries of the region. Voskanian cited the example of the abolition of the death penalty in Karabakh in 2003. Opponents say it would set a dangerous precedent to introduce it when the conflict with Azerbaijan remains unsettled.


Sergei Avanesian, a local resident, spoke for many when he said, “ I think it is too early for us to bring in alternative service. Ill-intentioned people can abuse it. We have very modest human resources and a constant threat of war and we cannot allow ourselves this.”


IWPR was present at the trial of Armen Grigorian. He told the court that his religion did not permit him to “fight physically” which is why he had refused to obey his commanders’ orders. That is why he had fled military service and even fled the military hospital where he was kept. He had even not been prepared to look after soldiers in hospital since this was an indirect way of serving the armed forces.


Areg Avanesian, visited by IWPR in jail, said he was “ready to sit out a jail sentence as long as I have to, but I will not go into the army”.


The intransigence of both men made it clear that this is a problem which will not go away.


Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist in Nagorny Karabakh and an IWPR contributor.