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Murder Puts Pressure on Armenia's Minority Faiths

Alleged killer’s reported links with Jehovah’s Witnesses heightens distrust of new religions.
By Gayane Mkrtchyan
  • A Jehovah's Witness gathering in Armenia. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
    A Jehovah's Witness gathering in Armenia. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
  • A Jehovah's Witness gathering in Armenia. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
    A Jehovah's Witness gathering in Armenia. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)

Armenians’ tolerance for religious minorities has been tested after a reported member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses allegedly killed his own parents, under orders, he apparently said, from Jehovah.

Despite a denial from the Jehovah’s Witnesses that he was a member of their church, Arman Torosyan’s alleged crime has heightened antipathy, already present in the country, towards new faiths that challenge the traditional Apostolic Church.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, founded in the United States in the 19th century, spread to Armenia and other ex-Soviet republics after 1991 along with other Protestant churches that are known in Armenia as “sects”. They are regarded with deep distrust by many Armenians despite their attempts to position themselves as non-threatening.

“The Jehovah’s Witnesses respect their parents, and highly value life, therefore killing any other person or committing suicide is unacceptable to them. Apart from that, they respect the rights and merits of other people,” said a statement from the church, which claims 10,500 members in the country.

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, spent three years gathering data for a report on religious freedom in the country. He 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, but still concerned Danielyan.

Judging by the press reaction to the murders in Sevan, Jehovah’s Witnesses are unlikely to find themselves freer to operate soon.

Torosyan, 23, is currently being held by police and questioned by psychologists. His neighbours told police and journalists that he had been an active Jehovah’s Witness, and quoted him as saying “I am fulfilling Holy Scripture. My father is the God Jehovah. I am killing Satan, and have already killed the first devils”, after allegedly killing his parents in their apartment.

That was enough to drive press commentators like Hasmik Harutyunyan, a journalist from the Azg newspaper, to speculate that religious toleration risked undermining the basis of Armenian society.

“We keep hearing that it’s necessary to be tolerant in relation to religion organisation. However, I think that in this we are threatening our own national values. I have often spoken to young followers of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t care about their own families, or about anything happening in the country. I have a feeling that they are under control, or just zombies, just look at the incident in Sevan,” she said.

A spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses declined to speak to IWPR, but Armen Lusyan, a representative of the Word of Life Evangelical Church, said the government needed to take a lead in avoiding religious intolerance, and heading off dangerous ideas.

“In particular, the conception of identifying religious and national characteristics, which appear at the moment with the idea that if you’re not a follower of the Armenian Apostolic Church then you’re not an Armenian,” Lusyan said.

“This could become a pretext for undermining the basis of Armenian society, dividing people by religion or even church membership, and is very undesirable for our people.”

All the small churches have a hard task persuading Armenians that they are not harmful, however. According to a survey conducted last year by the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, which asked 1040 people for their views on religion, 77.1 per cent have a negative view of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, while 41.3 and 39.6 per cent disapprove of Pentacostalists and the Mormons respectively.

Meanwhile, some 80 per cent of the population was positive about the Apostolic Church, which was founded in 301 AD and is the oldest national church in the world.

Vardan Ascatryan, head of the government’s office for national minorities and religion, said the population’s negative opinion of minority religious communities was caused by their proselytising.

“Often these organisations do not take into account the interest of the social medium that they operate in,” he said.

Gayane Mkrtchyan is a correspondent for ArmeniaNow.

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