As Armenia readies for a controversial December 6 referendum, public attention has tended to focus on proposed constitutional amendments that would alter the country’s political system. But another, less discussed amendment is generating concern among some who question whether the country’s religious minorities, often deemed purveyors of “perverse” Western values, could suffer.
Wariness of so-called “sects” — a euphemism for primarily evangelical Christian denominations, including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses — has long existed in Armenia. The state-financed Armenian Apostolic Church, believed to be the world’s oldest Christian institution, is widely seen as a major pillar of national identity.
Currently, the constitution provides for church-state separation. Constitutional amendments proposed by a commission working under President Serzh Sargsyan’s office would provide for freedom of religion and ban religious discrimination, yet article 41 stipulates that such freedom could be restricted “with the aim of protecting state security, the public order, health and morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”
Statements by senior Apostolic Church clergy and members of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia about the need to defend “national security” and “spiritual security” against Armenia’s 65 officially registered religious minorities suggest that this provision could be broadly interpreted, said Stepan Danielian, chair of the non-profit Cooperation for Democracy Center.
“We assume that this provision is going to be used for restricting the rights of religious organizations,” said Danielian, a political scientist who has conducted extensive research on the relationship between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the government.
The constitutional commission has not responded to such criticism.
The proposed changes assert that “religious organizations shall be separate from the state,” but they would also give the Armenian Apostolic Church a privileged place in society. The wording notes that the Apostolic Church has an “exclusive mission” as “the national church in the spiritual life of the Armenian people, in the development of its national culture, and in the preservation of its national identity.”
The current constitution defines that role as an “exclusive historical mission.” An earlier change to “a unique mission,” made in response to criticism from constitutional law experts at the Council of Europe, the continent’s main human-rights body, has been removed for unclear reasons.
The Church has not commented on the amendments’ wording, but is a staunch supporter of constitutional reform. So far, religious minorities have not expressed concern about potential changes. In 2015, the US Department of State, which has highlighted religious discrimination in Armenia, reported that “most” believe their situation has improved recently.
Yet Archimandrite Komitas Hovnanian, a prominent cleric in the capital, Yerevan, and surrounding region, insists that Armenians need to exercise caution about alternative religious groups. Hovnanian and other members of the clergy do not conceal a disdain for Western values.
Repeating a popular meme among Orthodox believers in Eurasia, Hovnanian alleged that Western values encourage social maladies, including suicide, incest, pedophilia and homosexuality. Foreign sects help spread such ideas in Armenia, he added.
“We go into any Western recycling bin and declare that we share these ‘values,’” he scoffed. “If anything is brought to Armenia, it doesn’t mean we must worship it.” Foreign “religious movements … don’t work for the benefit of our country, but, rather, aim to divide it.”
None of the groups in question advocate such behavior. Yet similar denunciations also have occurred in Armenia’s northern neighbor, Georgia, a predominantly Christian Orthodox country, and in its closest strategic ally, Russia, also majority Orthodox. The Armenian Apostolic Church is part of Oriental Orthodoxy, a separate branch of Christian Orthodoxy.
In a 2015 poll by the Stockholm-based World Values Survey, a network of international social scientists, 56.6 percent of the 1,100 Armenians surveyed reportedly expressed intolerance toward religious minorities.
Leading members of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) have also demonstrated flashes of intolerance. On October 7, senior RPA members in parliament called for public television and radio to be used for “fighting against sects.”
“It is no secret that, under the shadow of democracy, quite a lot of money enters the country and that money is used to create obstacles for our national values, our traditions, our strong families, our church and, here, Armenian Public TV has a big role to play,” argued RPA faction head Vahram Baghdasarian, news outlets reported.
Mainstream pro-government TV programs in Armenia already propagate those concerns about “sects,” but, with public television, a broader audience could be gained.
Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Eduard Sharmazanov declared that, after “the 70-year-long darkness” of the Soviet era, “citizens of an independent Armenia” need to promote the values of the Armenian Apostolic Church and respect for Armenia’s alphabet.
The Public TV and Radio Council has expressed willingness to create “such a show.”
Human rights activist Avetik Ishkhanian, chair of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, worries that such television programming could “imply mutual agreement between the government and the church.”
“They preach obedience to the government, and the government allows the church to earn money, as much as they want, without getting taxed,” Ishkhanian said.
For a government that has had to stare down an increasing amount of criticism over corruption and protests — most recently, this summer’s Electric Yerevan movement — Church backing for the incumbent administration is not insignificant.
Out of 1,832 Armenians surveyed in a regional 2013 poll, 56 percent — the highest percentage in the South Caucasus — stated that religion is “very important” in their daily life. Another 38 percent deemed it “rather important.”
As a reflection of that trend, senior officials, including President Serzh Sargsyan, regularly attend the opening of new Armenian Apostolic churches. Courses on church history now have become obligatory in public schools, while some members of non-denominational Christian groups claim that army chaplains force recruits to attend Armenian Apostolic Church services. The Defense Ministry’s website features a video message about the Armenian army from Archimandrite Hovnanian, who leads a Church youth organization.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.