Armenia Registers Jehovah's Witnesses

Authorities in Armenia registered the Jehovah's Witnesses on Wednesday, allowing the religious group to operate in the Caucasus Mountain nation after years of debate and denial.

The Jehovah's Witnesses first appeared in Armenia in 1988, after a devastating earthquake in what was then still a Soviet republic. But the group was unable to win registration after the nation became independent in the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Legalizing the Jehovah's Witnesses was one of the main conditions set out by the Council of Europe when the continent's leading human rights organization granted Armenia membership two years ago.

Deputy Justice Minister Tigran Mukuchian told The Associated Press a major obstacle to registration had been members' refusal to serve in the military, which in the past led to arrests and prison sentences. A law instituting alternative service has removed that obstacle, he said.

The leader of Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia, Grach Heshishian, expressed surprise at the Justice Ministry's decision, while the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church denounced it, calling the group "anti-Christian."

In the year 306, Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as the state religion.

An Armenian Apostolic Church statement accused the Jehovah's Witnesses and other unspecified organizations of having missions that involve "hunting for human souls, destroying families and creating a split in society."

Seeking to soothe church opposition to the registration, a Justice Ministry spokesman said that the authorities will watch closely to make sure the Jehovah's Witnesses are acting legally.

Official figures put the number of Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia at more than 4,000; one of the requirements for registration of a religious group is that it have at least 200 followers in the nation.

The Jehovah's Witnesses have faced pressure from the authorities in Russia. Courts in Moscow outlawed the group's activities in the capital earlier this year under a law allowing bans on religious groups that are considered to be inciting hatred or intolerant behavior.