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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

ARMENIA: Pastor prosecuted after journalists refuse to leave church

Following false claims in the Armenian media that an alleged murderer in Sevan is a Jehovah's Witness, a Pentecostal Pastor faces criminal trial for "obstructing the lawful professional activities of a journalist". Priests of the Armenian Apostolic Church took a Shant TV crew to the Pentecostal Church in Sevan. The TV crew did not seek permission to enter private property where the Church meets, and refused to leave when asked, so the Pastor then tried to stop them filming. After the TV station broadcast a report claiming that the Pastor attacked journalists, a criminal investigation was opened. Police refused to tell Pastor Bagdasaryan what was "lawful" about the journalists' activities. The Yerevan Press Club told Forum 18 that prosecutors are not usually so quick to defend journalists and start criminal proceedings. Asked by Forum 18 whether any journalist has the right to come into Shant TV's private property and to film, a Shant TV journalist told Forum 18: "That is not the same situation". Also, Armenian Justice Minister Hrair Tovmasyan has promised that controversial draft legal amendments will be re-drafted. However, a Ministry spokeswoman would not tell Forum 18 whether re-drafted amendments would be made available for public discussion before, after, or at the same time as they are sent to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission for review.

ARMENIA: "Why does the government keep pushing laws that get negative reviews?"

Nora Sargsyan of Armenia's Justice Ministry has stated that draft Amendments restricting freedom of religion or belief will be changed to reflect the recommendations of a Council of Europe / Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) legal review. This found that the Amendments do not comply with international human rights law. However, Vardan Astsatryan of the Ethnic Minorities and Religious Affairs Department claimed "the draft Amendments were in accordance with international human rights standards". Many human rights defenders and religious communities are concerned at what Pastor Ren̩ Leonian described as "limitations on freedom of conscience, freedom of expression of our faith and limitation on human rights generally". Stepan Danielyan of the Collaboration for Democracy Centre thinks the Amendments "had the strong backing of Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisyan". But, "why does the government keep pushing laws in this area that get negative reviews?" Maria Aghajanyan of the Open Society Foundations asked. Danielyan and Aghajanyan are organising a civil society-government round table "to get the government talking Рthis is a question of transparency", Aghajanyan told Forum 18.

ARMENIA: Growing concern over proposed legislative changes on religion

Human rights defenders and religious communities have harshly criticised proposed amendments to several Laws imposing new restrictions on and punishments for religious activity. The state would conduct a "theological expert examination" before granting registration to religious communities, while those that fail to provide full information about all their activities could be liquidated. Sharing faith is a particular target, with penalties for violations of up to three months' imprisonment. "If adopted, they will create two kinds of citizens in Armenia Рthose of the Armenian Apostolic Church on one side, and then the rest," Pastor Ren̩ Leonian of the Evangelical Church told Forum 18 News Service. "It is difficult for us to accept in an independent and democratic state that there can be two classes of citizen." The amendments, prepared by the Justice Ministry, only became known when placed on the Council of Europe's Venice Commission website on 30 November. "Such secrecy and silence is unacceptable," Larisa Minasyan of Armenia's Open Society Foundation told Forum 18.

ARMENIA: 73 religious prisoners, but will proposed amendments help?

As of 1 December, 73 Jehovah's Witness young men were serving prison sentences for refusing military service or military-controlled alternative service on grounds of conscience, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. All but one are serving terms of between two and three years' imprisonment. Six or seven more await trial. Lieutenant-Colonel Sasun Simonyan, Deputy Head of the Defence Ministry's Legal Directorate, told Forum 18 that amendments to the 2003 Law on Alternative Service his Ministry prepared are now with the Justice Ministry for review. He claimed the so-far unpublished amendments would ensure civilian control over alternative service. But he then said the Defence Ministry would be one of three ministries exercising control and if those doing the service commit criminal offences, they would be investigated by the Military Prosecutor's Office. "For the alternative service to be acceptable, there must be zero involvement of the Defence Ministry," Avetik Ishkhanyan, head of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, told Forum 18. "It sounds like this will be a step forward, but may not fully resolve the problem."

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: One year in prison for refusing military oath

Armen Mirzoyan, a young Baptist in Nagorno-Karabakh, an internationally unrecognised entity in the south Caucasus, was sentenced to one year's imprisonment on 30 June for refusing to swear the military oath and handle weapons during his compulsory military service, court officials told Forum 18 News Service. "Why has he been sentenced for following the Bible?" his brother Gagik – who had been imprisoned on the same charges by the same judge - told Forum 18. "I asked the officials why they treat Christians like this, and they responded that they follow the laws of Karabakh and no-one can tell them what to do," their mother Anna told Forum 18. Meanwhile, police confiscated religious literature from members of Revival Fire Evangelical Church returning to Karabakh from Armenia. Raids and fines on Protestant Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses continue. "Citizens are free to select their religion and worship," Deputy Foreign Minister Vardan Barsegyan claimed to Forum 18.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "We are getting ready for war and we need our nation to be united"

Fines today (27 April) on four Protestants bring to nine the number of religious believers punished so far for unregistered religious worship in Nagorno-Karabakh, the internationally unrecognised entity in the south Caucasus, religious communities have told Forum 18 News Service. More fines are likely. The fines follow eight police raids on worship services of Adventists, Evangelical Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses since February. "All religious organisations must have registration before they start to meet – it's the law," Deputy Police Chief Mkhitar Grigoryan told Forum 18, without admitting that two of these communities were denied registration. Karabakh's religious affairs official Ashot Sargsyan explained to the Adventists the government's attitude to smaller religious communities: "We are getting ready for war and we need our nation to be united".

COMMENTARY: The European Court of Human Rights - Out of step on conscientious objection

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR) has recently made a very dangerous judgement for freedom of religion or belief in the Bayatyan v. Armenia case which puts it out of step with the international standards on conscientious objection to military service and with the Council of Europe's own human rights agenda, notes Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The Court, apparently unaware of the recent parallel jurisprudence under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, found no violation of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the imprisonment of a Jehovah's Witness for his refusal on grounds of conscientious objection to perform military service, or the subsequent increase in the sentence, which had been partly justified by his reasons for refusal. Brett argues that it is vital that the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR agrees to hear the appeal in the Bayatyan case, as it alone can overturn the precedent which this will otherwise set for future ECtHR cases.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "If they violate the law by meeting together for religious purposes, they will be fined"

Jehovah's Witnesses in the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the south Caucasus, have lost a legal challenge to the entity's refusal to grant them legal status, Forum 18 News Service has learned. An appeal to the entity's Supreme Court may be made. Ashot Sargsyan, head of the Department for Ethnic Minority and Religious Affairs vigorously defended to Forum 18 denial of registration to Jehovah's Witnesses and a local Protestant Church. Sargsyan said that, without registration, individual believers have the right to conduct religious activity – such as to pray - alone at home. But he said neither of the two groups can meet together as a community, even in private. "If they violate the law by meeting together for religious purposes, they will be fined," Sargsyan pledged. Both groups have told Forum 18 that low-profile meetings are not currently being obstructed.

ARMENIA: Will critical review halt restrictive Religion Law?

The Council of Europe and OSCE have given a highly critical review of proposed amendments which have already been approved by Parliament in their first reading. The amended Religion Law would ban the sharing of faith, require 500 adult citizen members before a religious community could gain legal status, ban non-Trinitarian Christian communities from gaining legal status, give broad reasons for banning religious communities, and recognise the "exclusive mission" of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The new Criminal Code Article 162 would punish the sharing of beliefs. "The authorities have to take the points of this review into account, though I don't know if they will," Russian Orthodox priest Fr David Abrahamyan told Forum 18 News Service. "If they adhered to European standards they wouldn't have adopted these amendments in the first reading." The government's senior religious affairs official, Vardan Astsatryan, told Forum 18 he had "no knowledge" of the results of the review. But the Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 Astsatryan had told them in mid-June that the proposed amendments have been suspended but not abandoned.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "They can continue to pray, but not meet together for worship"

A Protestant community, Revival Fire Evangelical Church, has become the first and so far only religious community to be denied legal status by the unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It is uncertain what practical impact this will have. Ashot Sargsyan, head of the state Department for Ethnic Minority and Religious Affairs, told Forum 18 that "they can continue to pray, but won't have the right to meet together for worship as before." Asked what would happen if they do meet for worship, he responded: "The police will fine them and if they persist they will face Administrative Court." This was contradicted by Yuri Hairapetyan, the Human Rights Ombudsperson, who claimed that "they will be able to function but simply won't have legal status." Sargsyan claimed that "the church worked against the Constitution and against our laws," but when asked what court decisions had determined this replied that "no court has reviewed this issue."

ARMENIA: A "serious setback to the development of a modern, progressive and liberal Armenia"

Armenian human rights defenders and religious communities remain deeply concerned by many parts of the draft Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has found. Serious concern has also been expressed about the proposed new Article 162 in the Criminal Code, which would punish the sharing of beliefs. Both drafts were approved by Parliament in their first readings. A joint review of the new laws are expected to be conducted by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and the OSCE. Armen Ashotyan, a parliamentary deputy of the Republican Party in the government coalition, who is leading the adoption of the laws, told Forum 18 that deputies will wait for the review before proceeding further. However, he declined to pledge that all the review's recommendations will be accepted. Alarm has been caused by, among other provisions, a high legal status threshold of 500 people, bans on sharing beliefs, and unclear wording of provisions allowing religious organisations to be banned. They have been condemned as a "serious setback to the development of a modern, progressive and liberal Armenia"

ARMENIA: Two years' imprisonment for organising sharing of faith?

If two draft Laws which began passage through Armenia's Parliament on 5 February are adopted, spreading one's faith would be banned, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Those who organise campaigns to spread their faith would face up to two years' imprisonment, while those who engage in spreading their faith would face up to one year's imprisonment or a fine of more than eight years' minimum wages. Gaining legal status would require 1,000 adult members, while Christian communities which do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity would be barred from registering. "These proposed Laws contain violations of all human rights." Russian Orthodox priest Fr David Abrahamyan told Forum 18. Religious affairs official Vardan Astsatryan told Forum 18 the government backs the draft Laws "in general". He declined to explain why the government has not involved the OSCE in preparation of the draft Laws.