Armenia: Religious Freedom Debate Flares, Critics Say the Devil Is In the Details Of Legislative Amendments

February 24, 2009

Author: Gayane Abrahamyan

Source: Eurasianet

Proposed amendments to a law on religion in Armenia are stoking an intense debate over religious freedom and church-state relations. Some critics contend that the wording of the draft law provides a basis for persecution of political dissenters and religious minorities. Others warn of a looming theocracy. But the amendments’ sponsor, a member of the governing Republican Party of Armenia, denies any nefarious intent.

Under the proposed amendments to the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, people who proselytize without official permission would be subject to criminal penalties. Specifically, those who use "physical, moral or psychological pressure" or offer "material support" to encourage others to join religious organizations would face a year-long prison term, or a fine equal to 500 minimum salaries, about 15 million dram or $50,000. The law would apply to individuals "persecuting a person at home, the office, vacation areas, or other places, by phone or by other means."

The amendments would also increase from 200 to 500 the number of members a religious organization must have to be registered officially. In addition, the legislative changes would enable representatives of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Armenia’s predominant faith, to work with the government "in cases specified by law."