The US Department of State’s 2013 Religious Freedom Report on Armenia is estimated as biased and untrue by religious circles and national minority representatives.
What particularly raises controversies is the allegation that minority religious groups face discriminations against the backdrop of wide privileges granted to the Armenian Apostolic Church.
“Religious organizations are obliged to preserve and protect their own belief instead of engaging themselves in soul hunting. Nobody prevents them from pursuing their own belief. Such a statement could have been made only by individuals, circles and groups that are interested in destabilizing of Armenia and contributing to the Armenian nation’s internal splitting. What is mentioned there is absolutely untrue,” Archimandrite Komitas Hovnanyan told Tert.am, expressing his strong disagreement with the findings.
He said he is more than convinced that increased privileges to religious organizations are a major national security threat. “There are, so to say, religious minorities whose propaganda is based on plans to split the state institution. The youth, for instance, are called upon to avoid serving in the military, using weapons or protecting their country,” he noted.
Commenting on what the report described as privileges to the Armenian Apostolic Church, Mr Hovnanyan said, “The Armenian Apostolic Church does not actually have any privileges at all. It just follows that the publications on the Armenian Church contain no wrong records. The history of Armenian church is taught in schools by secular [teachers] not priests,” he added.
Hovnanyan said he believes that countries publishing such reports pursue specific interests, adding that Armenian state in turn is obliged to protect its own interests in such circumstances. “We must not let anyone speculate the concepts of freedom of conscience or speech by distorting their meaning. Freedom of conscience implies freedom of individual, not violence and coercion into adopting a belief of which the nation is not a follower,” he added.
Alexander Amaryan, the president of the Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Destructive Sects, agreed that granting wide privileges to the non-traditional religious groups is a threat to national security.
“All the data the Department of State publishes in the report are provided by local rights institutions which submit biased reports in an effort to extort grants. No other country is as tolerant as Armenia, as the laws here never place restrictions on religious organizations,” he added.
Amaryan said he thinks that restrictions exist in Europe not in Armenia, adding that the national churches in all countries enjoy certain privileges. “They all have begun assisting religious organizations and later complain about intolerance. That’s a bluff,” he said, describing the findings as an attempt to exert pressure on the Armenian authorities.
Aziz Tamoyan, the president of Armenia’s Yezidi community, also disagreed with the allegation that ethnic and religious minorities experience discrimination in the country. “We are free; nobody prevents us from preserving our national holidays and traditions. On the contrary, we here have our own schools, and it is thanks to Armenia that our culture develops around the world,” he said, adding that the Armenian Apostolic Church demonstrates respect for the Yezidis’ traditions.
“Why doesn’t [the United States of] America care about the disappearing Yezidi and Asyrian populations in the north of Iraq? Let them think of measures to prevent their Yezidis from changing their religion, as they are physically exterminated by Muslims,” Tamoyan noted.
The Jewish community’s president, Rima Varzhapetyan, also denied the reports about restrictions or violations against minority groups in Armenia.
Asked whether the community is concerned about the privileges granted to the national church, Varzhapetyan replied, “The Armenian Apostolic Church has always proven that it is very tolerant and progressive.”
According to Avetik Iskhanyan, Chairperson of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, the report is based on objective evaluations.
“Religious tolerance is really quite a serious issue in Armenia, as the media all the time conduct a one-sided propaganda. In secondary schools, the history of Armenian church is taught in an effort to conduct an anti-propaganda against other religious organizations. The children who receive such kind of education develop intolerance to other religious organizations,” he noted.
Asked whether it isn’t normal that the Armenian Apostolic Church has privileges as opposed to other religious groups, Ishkhanyan said, “International standards allow for granting privileges to a church, but that should not amount to a discriminatory attitude to other religious organizations. Our laws give the Apostolic Church monopolistic rights,” he added.
Asked whether higher privileges for other religious organizations would not be a national security threat, Ishkhanyan said he thinks just the other way about. “Religious intolerance is a real threat to Armenia’s security, as it splits up the nation on religious grounds,” he noted.
“Representatives of other religious organizations are oppressed in Armenia, because they never see themselves as full-fledged citizens. This is really a national security threat, because identifying an Armenian with the Armenian Apostolic Church really splits up the nation.”