Priest Vagram MELIKIAN, Egine MKRTCHIAN
Priest Vagram Melikian, Director, Information Center of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin (Erevan, Armenia)
Egine Mkrtchian, Director, Press Center of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin (Erevan, Armenia)
Today there are 56 officially registered religious organizations in Armenia and about 10 unregistered ones, which is a lot for a country with a population of slightly over 3 million. This figure looks even more impressive in a country which adopted Christianity 1,700 years ago. What is more, the Armenian Apostolic Church with its long history and deep roots has had a significant influence on the Armenians’ psychology, culture, and traditions.
In this historical context, deviations from the national church are largely due to social and political factors. First, the atheism imposed on the people in Soviet times has generated a post-Soviet upsurge of interest in religion, which occurred at the same time as an upsurge in the republic’s national life. This attracted religious organizations of all hues to Armenia, while the social and economic difficulties caused by the 1988 earthquake and the first years of independence, coupled with the appalling poverty of the local people, supplied all sorts of religious organizations with a pretext for invading the country under the guise of charities. Humanitarian aid attracted people to the new religious trends. As distinct from the Armenian Church which, after decades of persecution, needed new clergymen, these religions were past masters of active, aggressive or, at times, illegal proselytizing.
The 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, which said in part: “The Republic of Armenia ensures freedom of conscience and religious beliefs of its citizens. Each citizen can freely choose his attitude to religion, he has the right to profess any religion or to profess none; to perform religious rites independently or together with other citizens,” contributed to the present religious patchwork in the republic. The law gives a relative description of a religious organization: any group of at least 200 members (under the 1996 Appendix to the 1991 Law) may be registered as a religious organization, providing it meets certain conditions, i.e. it is based on a historically accepted canonical holy book; its religion is part of the contemporary universal system of religious-church communities, etc. Registration makes such a group a legal entity with all the rights envisaged by national legislation.
At the same time, the state does nothing to stem illegal activities or to ensure the legal registration of religious structures, which would make them answerable to the law. The obvious social changes in Armenia, on the one hand, and the favorable religious legislation, on the other, created a highly variegated religious picture which includes nearly all the religious trends found elsewhere in the world: Christianity, Judaism, paganism, and Sun worshipping. There are also new religious trends, some of them known as totalitarian sects. Today, these developments concern only a few social organizations.
The only state structure engaged in these problems is the Department for National Minorities and Religions under the republic’s government. As a mere intermediary between the state and religious organizations, it has no legal tools to apply and is confined to professional expertise and consultations.
Religious Organizations Functioning in Armenia
The Department supplies information about the registered organizations and their religious and confessional trends.
The first among them is the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church. There are also four registered communities of the Russian Orthodox Church in the republic; three communities of the Armenian Catholic Church; one community of the Eastern Nestorian Church, as well as communities of the Yezidis of Armenia (Sharfadins) and Jews. These groups are living peacefully side by side in the favorable climate created by the positive attitude shown by the public, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the state. Nothing interferes with their functioning, while the state even helps them. In 2005, the government gave the Russian Orthodox Church a plot of land (5,000 sq m) for a cathedral. On another occasion, at the request of the Catholicosate of the Assyrian Church of the East, the government returned the Assyrian religious organizations of Armenia two cathedrals with the right to free use.
There are several Protestant confessions in Armenia (churches of Evangelists, Evangelical Baptists, Adventists, and Pentecostals), many of them are registered as individual religious structures at their pastors’ home addresses. Some have been registered as religious Protestant charities and present themselves as religious organizations. It should be noted that two out of six— branches of the French Hope for Armenia and the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America—are headed by one man, who is president of all the Evangelical religious organizations functioning in Armenia.
New religious trends are also functioning in the republic: the Armenian community of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Bahais, etc. There are also registered pagan and ecumenical structures.
The list of registered religious organizations can be completed with a list of public organizations of a religious nature. They are the widely known Unification Church (the Church of Moon); “Dianetics” (Scientology); the Armenian Roerich Society (an occult structure), Waldorf Pedagogic, etc. There are also all kinds of Protestant structures, including young men’s (women’s) Christian associations, charities, human rights organizations, foundations, etc. In the religious respect, they are less transparent, the religious side being camouflaged by charities in the social sphere, education, and culture. The Krishna Consciousness Association, the Erevan All-Evangelical Ararat Church, the Union of Independent Churches, and the occult groups (clairvoyants, UFO-logists, etc.) are outlawed as unregistered. According to unofficial information, there are even groups of Satanists in Armenia.
There is no reliable information on how many people belong to all the active religious organizations and groups. According to official statistics, most belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, yet no exact figures have been supplied so far. The latest (2001) population census established that 96 percent of the republic’s population are Armenians; the census, however, did not establish religious affiliation. The remaining four percent are made up of national minorities: Russians, Yezidis, Kurds, Assyrians, Greeks, Ukrainians, Jews, etc. They mainly belong to their traditional religions, yet some of them embrace other confessions and do not belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. There is no reliable information (existing information is highly contradictory) about the number of Armenian followers of religions other than the Armenian Apostolic Church.
At the end of 2005, only 17 out of 56 religious organizations supplied information about themselves over the last 12 months. However, the expert community believes that the supplied information cannot be trusted. For the third year running, the Mormons maintain they have 1,700 followers, even though this figure and the number of their structures are on the rise. Young men in white shirts with black bags slung over one shoulder—the Mormon uniform—can frequently been seen in the very center of Erevan. Unofficial sources insist that the share of followers of religious structures other than the Armenian Apostolic Church has reached 10 to 15 percent of the total population; 20 to 25 percent is also cited, but this figure looks less plausible.
Today the religious situation in the Republic of Armenia is highly variegated; it needs to be ordered and carefully analyzed.
Religious Tolerance and National Security
Under the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, freedom of conscience comes second after national security, maintenance of order, protection of health and morality, and the rights and freedoms of other citizens. This gives the Armenian Apostolic Church and some public organizations grounds to be concerned about the activities of certain religious, mainly new, structures, the totalitarian activity of which is destroying the nation’s spiritual, moral, and cultural values. To demonstrate its concern and protest against such activities, the public holds rallies, demonstrations, and other mass events.
There are many reasons for alarm: murders, suicides, divorces, degeneration of public morals, etc. Alexander Amarian, head of the Public Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Destructive Sects, is convinced that these sects staged the color revolutions in the post-Soviet countries. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and certain Protestant trends are the most pernicious. It should be said that the Armenian Apostolic Church has no problems with the traditional old Christian sister churches. Functioning all over the world, the Armenian Church cooperates at various levels—from the parishes and dioceses up to the highest level—with other Christian churches in many spheres of religious service in Armenia and beyond. It demonstrates sufficient tolerance toward several traditional Protestant confessions. Still, some religious organizations, Protestant organizations among them, are using legal loopholes to proselytize among the followers of the Armenian Church.
Statistics show that the number of suicides (even among minors) in the republic is growing. This happens mostly for social reasons, yet some of the dead belonged to religious sects. In the fall of 2005, for example, a police precinct in the north of the country received information about an attempted suicide: a 43-year-old man tried to hang himself. He prepared a wooden cross with an inscription stating that he was a Jehovah’s follower and so would be accepted into heaven. Official sources offer no comment about this and similar cases. Meanwhile, families fall apart for religious reasons. A recent court case in Erevan is the best illustration of this. The father of an 8-year-old boy demanded that his ex-wife, the boy’s mother, should be deprived of her parental rights as a Jehovah’s Witness; the boy did not want to live with his mother either.
Conscription into the army of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a sect which has been active in the republic for 15 years and claimed a membership of up to 20,000, continued to be a problem in 2005. However, it was registered as late as 2004 and as a Christian structure. This fact caused a wave of indignation in the Armenian Apostolic Church and the public. For several years, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were not registered because their rules contradict the law on conscription—its members refuse to carry firearms. The dilemma was resolved by the Law on Alternative Service adopted in 2004, under which 25 of its members were sent to hospitals and homes for the aged to carry out alternative service. In 2005, 23 of them left the service, claiming it to be degrading and below their human dignity. Today only two out of the original 25 continue their service, while criminal cases have been instituted against the rest.
The social cards introduced in January 2005 caused another religious and social problem: a small group of Armenian citizens became convinced that the cards threatened both their spiritual safety and the country’s national security. Some of those who consider themselves followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church closed ranks in an association called Against Assigning People Numbers. They refuse to obey the Law on Social Security Cards and to receive such cards because of their spiritual convictions. Neither the Armenian Apostolic Church, nor the Supreme Spiritual Council managed to dissuade them, even though the Council issued a statement about the absolute safety of social security cards. The state agreed on concessions, yet the people who rejected the cards refused to collect their allowances and salaries. The religious problem became a social one. Passions flew high at the rallies until the issue was moved to the courts, which are now busy investigating cases of timely payment of pensions and salaries.
The Armenian Apostolic Holy Church
The Armenian Apostolic Church is more than a religious organization: over many centuries it has been a symbol of statehood for a nation and country which lost its independence, a unifying force, a patron of sciences and enlightenment, and even a supporter in the national-liberation movement. Today, in the sovereign state, the Church is separated from the state, yet thanks to its role in public life and its impact on the society’s spiritual and moral life, it remains one of the major public institutions. As the spiritual center of all Armenians through three hierarchical chairs—the Houses of Cilicia, Jerusalem, and Constantinople—and of about forty dioceses functioning all over the world, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin is a force that unites all Armenians. For this reason, the Armenian Church and its spiritual center are more important to the Armenians than any other church.
In a country which has recovered its independence, the Church is fighting the challenges of the times in an effort to restore its influence and perform the religious and moral mission it lost under Soviet power. National religious anniversaries and memorial dates are the nation’s moral stimuli. In 2005, the Church and the state marked an important date—the 1,600th anniversary of the Armenian script, which became a powerful tool of the Church and the people, saving the Armenians from complete assimilation. In January 2005, His Holiness Garegin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, issued an encyclical in celebration of the anniversary of this great historic event.
Another encyclical was publicized to mark the 90th anniversary of the memory of the victims of the tragic events of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire. A commission of the Armenian Apostolic Church set up to look into possible canonization of the victims of these events met in September 2005 in Etchmiadzin.
The year 2005 saw other important events: the pilgrimage of His Holiness to Jerusalem and the Holy Places on 12-14 May and the Patriarchal visit to the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of North America in June.
The pilgrimage to Jerusalem was of historic importance. The group of about 80 people who accompanied His Holiness was made up of top officials, respected intellectuals, and public figures. In November, a large delegation headed by Chief Rabbi of Israel Jona Metsger visited Armenia. This visit demonstrated the religious tolerance lacking among the Jewish extremists in Israel toward the Christians in Jerusalem and especially toward the Armenian clergy. It was the first visit of the primate of Jerusalem to Armenia. While still in Jerusalem, His Holiness said: “This visit (pilgrimage.—Auth.) will open a dialog between the two religions and two nations.” The visit of the Chief Rabbi, in turn, caused quite a stir in Armenia: the delegation was received by the Catholicos and Premier Andranik Margarian.
In August, the spiritual leaders of Canada paid a friendly visit to Holy Etchmiadzin.
The relations in another sphere of inter-church life took a different turn. Recently, the problem of the legal status of the Armenian Diocese in Georgia created tension in the relations between the two churches; nor is there an agreement on several churches confiscated in Soviet times from the Armenian Church and on those which became the property of the Georgian Church. The Armenian Diocese in Georgia finds it hard to organize the national-religious life of its parishioners in the absence of a law on the national minorities’ religious life. In April, a delegation of the Armenian Church arrived in Tbilisi to discuss the issue. It met with His Holiness Ilia II, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, and the Georgian premier. The heads of state of both countries also discussed the issue. The Catholicos of All Armenians sent letters to the Patriarch and the President of Georgia. Nothing helped.
The Church has other burning problems. The Catholicosate of All Armenians and the Armenian Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia (Lebanon) met to discuss a draft on Injunction to Spiritual Renewal of the Armenian Church. The delegations specified the major issues of the Armenian Church’s activities in the religious and administrative spheres, ritual life, and its relations with the state and other churches.
The public tends to regard the Armenian Church’s mission in various spheres of social life as obligatory. That is why its everyday activities pass unnoticed; only a couple of events in the relations between churches or between the Church and the state rivet public attention.
The referendum on constitutional amendments was one such significant event. The Constitution, based on the results of the referendum of 27 November, opened up new prospects for the country’s religious life, particularly for the Armenian Apostolic Church. The new text of the Constitution said: “The Republic of Armenia recognizes the exclusive historical mission of the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church as a national Church in spiritual life, the development of the national culture, and the preservation of the national identity of the Armenian people.”
The previous version made no mention of the Armenian Church and limited itself to “everyone is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.” It was only the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations that spoke of the Armenian Church’s unrivalled role in the life of the Armenians. Its preamble described the Armenian Apostolic Church as a national church, yet it is mentioned in the chapters dealing with religious organizations as one of many structures. The law did not neglect its role in all spheres of public life and recognized the following activities as its privilege: free preaching, building of churches, restoration and use of the old churches, support of the Armenian people’s spiritual education and enlightenment, etc. It is unclear, though, how these legal privileges can be implemented and how they are to be preserved. In fact, the relations between the Church and the state in Armenia hinge on a couple of agreements between them.
In 2000, the Government of the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian Apostolic Church signed a Memorandum of Intentions in Holy Etchmiadzin which described the nature of the relations between the Church and the state. The document envisaged further improvement of the legal basis of their relationship, specification of the problems related to the Church’s property (land and real estate, monuments of culture and history, etc.), and tax privileges to the Church and its traditional organizations. Several protocol issues specified participation of the Armenian Apostolic clergy in state events. The Memorandum paid particular attention to the Church’s role in education, culture, social insurance, and health services. It was also planned to let the Church work in the armed forces and prisons.
Contrary to general expectations, no final agreement based on the document appeared. Later the Defense Ministry and Holy Etchmiadzin signed two documents. The first was the Rules of Spiritual Service in the Armed Forces, which regulated chaplain service in the army; today there are about 30 chaplains in the Armenian army. The second document, which was related to education, was finally enacted in 2005. In compliance with this document, signed by the premier of Armenia and the Catholicos of All Armenians, the subject “History of the Armenian Church” was added to all curricula for 4th to 10th graders in secondary schools. The textbooks written jointly by the Ministry of Education and Science and the Center of Spiritual Education of Holy Etchmiadzin are of a purely academic nature.
The Armenian Apostolic Church can do more than that. It can not only educate a new generation of clergy, restore the old and build new churches, but it can be active in the social sphere as well: charity diners, social centers, centers of Armenian youth, unions of young believers, hospitals, hospices, homes for the elderly and orphans, a TV company, etc. To make this possible the Church needs corresponding laws.
Opinions about the new amendment to the Constitution which mentioned the Armenian Apostolic Church differed. The Liberal-Democratic Party Ramkavar, one of the traditional parties, for example, believes that the constitutional amendment did not fully reveal the role of the Armenian Apostolic Church, since it did not mention the status of Holy Etchmiadzin as the spiritual center and the Catholicos of All Armenians as the head of the Church. Still, the fact that the Church was mentioned at all in the Constitution marked huge progress in the relations between the Church and the state.