Religion and Law: Armenian debate focuses on defining proselytism

Armenia - Debate in Armenia regarding changes in the law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” continues. In particular, the term “proselytizing” has created much controversy. The updated version of the draft law will be submitted to the National Assembly in three months.

The law has been discussed twice by the National Assembly, in 2008 and 2009, and was sent back for further elaboration.

At a press conference in Yerevan on Wednesday Chairman of the International Association of Lawyers and Psychologists Khachatur Marozyan expressed an opinion that the law will further widen the rift that exists in the Armenian society today.

“The different parts of the society are not so serene, poor people do not like the rich, the poor are felt sorry for rather than liked… in these conditions a patchy, contradictory piece of legislation that has been brought about creates barricades splitting the society, which does not meet the interests of the country and the state,” said Marozyan, who thinks that proselytizing is not a legal concept and cannot have a legal definition.

In the changes proposed to the law proselytizing is defined as an act of religious influence on citizens with or without religious views during which material incentives are offered or compelled, physical or psychological pressure or coercion are exerted, hatred towards other religious organizations, their creed and activities is formed, an insult against other people or another religion is expressed, a person is pursued on more than one occasion in his apartment, place of work, rest, etc., as well as by telephone conversation without his or her wish or request.”

Marozyan thinks that by this law people get deprived of the right to make charity. He cites the example of gifts provided to about 200 socially vulnerable families through him by the Evangelic Church. He insists that by making those donations the Church did not try to make those children become its followers.

Marozyan’s opinion was not shared by Khachakir (Crusader) NGO Board Chairman Gagik Sarukhanyan, who was also present at the press conference. He thinks that the Armenian Apostolic Church is weakened, because for years on people have been educated along the path of atheism.

“For centuries the Armenian people had no statehood and the Armenian Apostolic Church assumed the whole burden of preserving the nation. Today when people’s souls are empty, any church will come here to hunt these souls,” said Sarukhanyan.

By the way, earlier this week the U.S. State Department published on International Religious Freedom for the period July-December 2010. Its Armenia-related section quotes local observers as saying that there is “a general perception of minority religious groups as threats to the state.” The authors of the report note that “minority religious groups at times continued to be targets of hostile sermons by Armenian Church clerics, and members of minority religious groups experienced societal discrimination and intolerance, including in the workplace.” The report also stresses that “the law grants certain privileges to the Armenian Church that are not available to other religious groups.