The law provides the Apostolic Church with a number of privileges: assistance from the state budget, the right to participate in the development of lessons for the ‘History of the Church’ subject for school curricula; and the opportunity to implement educational programs in educational establishments.
Mass media are also obliged to publish the Church’s official reports without changes, the state recognizes weddings and divorces conducted by the Apostolic Church, and the production and sale of items intended for church rituals are exempt from taxes. Those hearing confessions also cannot be questioned as a witness about information gained from a person’s confession.
Other religious organizations are deprived of these rights and privileges.
The law is the immediate result of an amendment to the Constitution adopted in 2005 that recognizes the exclusive mission of the Apostolic Church in the spiritual life of the Armenian people, the development of national culture and the preservation of national identity.
Avetik Ishkanyan, chairman of the Armenia Helsinki Committee, says that the law gives the Church a Ministerial status which is at odds with the constitutional separation of Church and State.
Armenia undertook an obligation as a member of the Council of Europe to remove discrimination against religious organizations. Ishkhanyan argues that this new law entrenches this discrimination.
“There are many citizens who are atheists or are not members of the Apostolic Church. Why should money they pay in taxes be allocated to the Apostolic Church?” he says.
“Why should a church report be published without changes and other organizations’ not? Why are only weddings conducted by the Apostolic Church recognized and by other churches not? Why should pupils study the history of the Church at school separately from the history of the Armenian people? These and other privileges show one thing – that the law compensates the support of the Church for the authorities.”
Stepan Danielyan, chairman of the “Cooperation for Democracy” organization, says that a failure to provide the same privileges to other religious organizations will put Armenia in breach of its international commitments.
“First, a new law on freedom of conscience should have been adopted in accordance with European conventions. Based on that law, a law on relations between the Apostolic Church and the state should have been adopted that did not contain discrimination. It is nonsense now,” he says.
The law states that the Republic of Armenia recognizes the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church as the national church with its center in the Mother See of Etchmiadzin.
Ishkhanyan says this ignores the culture created by pagan, Catholic, and protestant Armenians, as well as dividing followers of other religious organizations functioning in Armenia from the State.
Danielyan argues that the national provision contradicts the European Convention on Nationalities by which a nation is a form of relationship between citizens and a state, and national belonging is a citizenship.
Hranush Kharatyan, head of the Department for National Minorities and Religious Affairs of the Armenian Government, defended the law. She says that it does not introduce any discrimination and 70 percent of the detail was taken from the Law on Freedom of Conscience, which also extends certain privileges to other religious groups.
“Funding from the state budget is not related to religious rituals, so it is not a matter of discrimination. It is concerned with the preservation and enrichment of ‘cultural establishments, collections, museums, libraries, and archives that constitute a part of the statehood and national cultural heritage’,” she says.
“That is, what belongs to the Church is part of our national culture and can be under the auspices of the State.”
Kharatyan says that marriages conducted by the Apostolic Church are recognized as lawful because the Church applied to the State for recognition of them. Other religious communities can also apply for this recognition.
An ethnographer by profession, Kharatyan argues that the notion of nationality is controversial and has two meanings – in one case it implies ethnicity and in another it might imply statehood.
To describe the Armenian Apostolic Church as national is not quite correct, since its followers are not exclusively Armenians. The Udi people living in Azerbaijan are also apostolic, she says.
Edited by Zartonk, 02 March 2007 - 11:59 AM.