State Dept. Says, Armenian Constitution Guarantees Freedom of Religion

Etchmiadzin Cathedral (Source: Public Radio of Armenia)

Etchmiadzin Cathedral (Source: Public Radio of Armenia)

WASHINGTON (Public Radio of Armenia)—The U.S. Department of State has released the International Religious Freedom Report for 2014, which includes findings on religion in the Republic of Armenia. The annual report describes the status of religious freedom in every country. The report covers government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.

“The Armenian constitution guarantees the freedom of religion and establishes the separation of church and state, but at the same time recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church as the national church and preserver of the national identity,” the report reads.

The constitution states that the right of individuals to practice their religion freely may only be restricted in the interests of public security, health, or morality.

“The law governing religious groups does not explicitly mandate registration of religious groups, but only registered groups have legal status. In order to register as a legal entity, a religious community or organization has to present to the Office of the State Registrar an expert opinion from the Department of Religious Affairs and National Minorities that the community or organization complies with requirements of the law that it is based on some ‘historically recognized holy scripture,’ its doctrine is one espoused by a member of the ‘international modern system’ of religious communities, it is ‘free from materialism and is of spiritual nature,’ and has at least 200 adult members. The law does not define what is meant by ‘free from materialism’ or which religious communities are considered to be part of the ‘international modern system.’ These requirements do not apply to the religious groups associated with national ethnic minorities, such as Molokans and Yezidis,” the report reads.

“The law also enumerates the rights of religious organizations, which include: to minister to the religious-spiritual needs of their faithful; to perform religious liturgies, rites, and ceremonies; to establish groups for religious instruction; to engage in theological, religious, and historical and cultural studies; to train members for clergy or for scientific and pedagogical purposes; to obtain and utilize objects and materials of religious significance; to use communications media; to establish ties with religious organizations in other countries; and to engage in charity. According to the law, these rights arise from the moment a religious organization is registered,” the Department of State said in the report.

The law allows the Armenian Apostolic Church free access or the right to station representatives in hospitals, orphanages, boarding schools, military units, and places of detention, while other religious groups may have representatives in these places only upon request. The law prohibits, but does not define, “soul hunting,” a term describing both proselytism and forced conversion.

The law mandates that public education be secular, but courses on the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church are a mandatory part of the public school curriculum from grades 5-11. The church has the right to participate in the development of the syllabus and textbooks for these courses and to define the qualifications of their teachers. The church may also nominate candidates to teach the courses. Students are not permitted to opt out of the courses. The law grants the Armenian Apostolic Church the right to organize voluntary extracurricular religious classes in state educational institutions. Other religious groups may provide religious instruction to members in their own facilities.

The law, as amended in 2013, provides for two types of service for conscientious objectors as an alternative to regular military service: alternative (non-combat) military service with a duration of 30 months or alternative labor service with a duration of 36 months. Evasion of alternative service remains a criminal offense.

The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred through violence, public statements, or the mass media and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($426 to $1,064) or prison terms between two years and six years. The criminal code also prohibits obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion and prescribes a punishment ranging from fines up to 200,000 drams ($426) or detention of up to two months.

The law provides for nondiscrimination in all spheres of civic, political, public, economic, and cultural life regardless of religious affiliation or belief, but does not provide specific punishments for offenses of this nature.

The full report for 2014 can be found here.

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