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Justice Ministry’s New Bill to Grant Monopoly to Armenian Apostolic Church

The Ministry of Justice of Armenia has put forward a proposal to amend the law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations.” At a press conference on Monday, a group of human rights defenders expressed their concern that with the adoption of the amendments, the role and positions of the Armenian Apostolic Church would be strengthened even more, while the freedom of speech of smaller religious units might be limited. Note, the revised version of the draft has yet to be made available to the public.

No religious organizations apart from the Armenian Apostolic Church will be allowed to receive foreign financial assistance; all members of a religious organization will have to be registered with tax authorities by name; the organizations’ activities may be terminated at any time under the pretext of state security.

According to Artur Sakunts, head of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzor Office, the adoption of the current version of the bill would seriously threaten the freedom of conscience, religion, and beliefs in Armenia.

“This is a rather restricting bill for all religious organizations; its adoption would create a completely uncontrolled activity field for Armenian Apostolic Church. The bill ensures the AAC’s total monopoly in the sphere of beliefs,”Sakunts said.

The Justice Ministry’s official justification for the amendments states that “the current law contains a number of flaws, contradictions and does not correspond to the constitutional reforms carried out in Armenia and international agreements and obligations the country has recently assumed.”

The first discussions over the bill began way back in June 2017, when the Justice Ministry released it on the official website designed for the publication of draft legal acts (e-draft.am).

“It was up for public debates for only a month. However, a discussion on an official level in which all interested parties would be able to express their concerns was never actually held,” Anush Margaryan, a human rights expert with the Eurasia Partnership Foundation, argued today.

After a series of public discussions initiated by the EPF over the last year and attended by representatives of the Justice Ministry and a number of religious and public organizations, the authors took the bill back for revision and made some changes to the proposal. The revised version, however, has yet to be published on E-draft.

Margaryan, meanwhile, has had a chance to get acquainted with the new version, which, according to her, “is even more problematic.” The revised bill, in particular, states that “the activities of a religious organization can be terminated if they are aimed at weakening defense, propagating religious fanaticism, committing an immoral act.”

“What does it mean to ‘weaken defense’? How is an ‘immoral act’ defined? That is not a legal category,” Margaryan argued.

Deputy chairman of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, MP Armen Ashotyan had earlier commented on the proposed amendments, suggesting that “the activities of totalitarian and destructive sects should be categorically banned by law.” According to Avetik Ishkhanyan, president of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, Ashotyan’s stance “is propagandistic and is aimed at intimidating people.”