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By Rev. Fr. Ktrij Devejian*

YEREVAN - Freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom of religion are cornerstones of free societies. But each has been limited by governments for the greater good.  Laws are made by governments with the consent of the governed to limit and curtail certain activities. Speed limits, responsible use of firearms, minimum drinking ages, etc., are just a few examples.

One may argue that a speed limit in front of a school is an infringement of my liberties as a free individual; however the safety of the children walking to and from school supersedes my right to drive at 120 km/h down that same street.

So as a society, we make tradeoffs.  It's the way civil societies work.

The point of this article is not to debate the merits of any one political ideology.  The point is to remind the Armenian citizen, human rights activists and a number of international organizations (both within and without Armenia) that freedom should not equal anarchy.  Within freedom there are still rules.

Armenia is in the process of re-evaluating the "Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations".  It was originally adopted in 1991, and has since been revised twice - in 1997 and 2001. 

This newest attempt to revisit the law has within it components of housekeeping (elimination of preamble, etc.) and clarification (definition of proselytism).  If successful, it will also be the first time the law has been amended since the constitutional referendum of 2005 and the adoption of the law regulating the relationship between the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian Church, in 2007.

There have been numerous misconceptions and incorrect assertions made about this law in the media.  This is an attempt to clarify and correct them.

First, it should be stated that the proposed changes to the law are at the initiative of the RA National Assembly (parliament) and not at the behest of the Armenian Church.

Second, the increase in the minimum number of adherents from 200 to 1000 for a religious organization, is for the entire country; and not as it has been erroneously reported, per congregation, parish, village or community.  Additionally, ethnic minorities (Russians, Jews, etc.) are exempt even from this requirement.  Nevertheless, 1000 people is not an unreasonable threshold to meet in a population of 3.2 million citizens.

Third, in Armenian the word that appears in the law, Hogevorsutiun (Հոգեորսություն) is more than simply the English definition of proselytism.  It literally translates as "soul-hunting". 

The 2001 amendments to the law already prohibited soul-hunting, but the criminal code had no accommodations or penalties for the crime.  The proposed 2009 amendment clearly defines the crime and outlines maximum penalties.  And the penalties are prescribed only in cases of clear harassment, abuse and coercive practices. 

Soul-hunting is defined in the law as the act of "utilizing material (financial) enticements, physical pressure, threats and coercion in spreading the message of a religious organization to adherents of other faiths or to those who adhere to no faith".  This definition of proselytism is taken directly from the World Council of Churches condemnation of the act at its Third Assembly in New Delhi in 1961, when it labeled proselytism as a "corruption" of faith and witness.  Additionally, any religious organization is prohibited by reaching its aims by "utilizing slander or sowing distrust" in another religious organization.

Fourth, the proposed changes mandate that any religious organization that claims to be a Christian one, must "confess that Jesus Christ is God and Savior, and (must) accept the Holy Trinity".  This does not prevent non-Christian religious organizations from registering.  It simply means that if you claim to be Christian, then at a minimum, you must confess that Christ is God.

Fifth, the proposed changes clearly state that all citizens of the Republic of Armenia are equal in the eyes of the law "regardless of their attitude toward religion or their religious affiliation".  No discrimination or differentiation is permissible due to religious denomination or faith, or lack thereof.

Sixth, in response to claims that the law explicitly or implicitly supports the national church, the answer is, "of course it does".  The Armenian Church has been the national church for more than 1,700 years.  It is not merely a religious organization - it is the very nation itself.  The Armenian Church transcends even the state, in that it has continually existed and endured in times when the state has not.

Nevertheless, the Armenian Church, even though it is recognized as the national church and is overwhelmingly the dominant church in Armenia, is still subject to the same law and penalties prescribed therein. Therefore, the Armenian Church cannot utilize any tactics or methods that have been denied to other religious organizations.

In Armenia today, as has been true for the nearly two decades of independence, every individual is free to choose any church, any faith or even to choose to abstain from faith.  However, if the proposed changes to the law are enacted, then religious organizations will at last, be limited to the extent that the rights of the organization may not infringe on the rights of the individual.  The individual outranks the collective.

There is a wide chasm that separates the innocent and perhaps noble "sharing of one's faith" from abuse and improper behavior.  The citizen has just as much right to be protected from overzealous proselytizers as the proselytizer does to preach his message.  This law attempts to insure that no one's civil rights - neither the proselytizer's nor the citizen's - are violated.

*Rev. Fr. Ktrij Devejian is Foreign Press Secretary of the Catholicosate of All Armenians and the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin

Source: The Armenian Reporter, March 14, 2009

Added: Friday, March 27, 2009
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