OSCE: Armenia Softening Law On Religions

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YEREVAN, Armenia, Aug. 23 (UPI) — European officials say they’re working with Armenia to amend a draft law governing religious groups to better protect the human rights of minorities.

Rights advocates, the Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe, the U.S. State Department, the Council of Europe and others have consistently criticized the proposed Armenian Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Freedoms since it was first offered in 2009.

Critics contend it would cement the dominant position of the Armenian Apostolic Church as the de facto official religion of the country and impose onerous requirements on other religious groups, which would only be authorized “on the basis of an expert opinion of its religiousness.”

The vaguely worded law calls for the doctrine of groups seeking legal status to come under strict review before licenses could be granted, while proselytizing, or “soul hunting,” would be criminalized, the Norwegian human rights organization Forum 18 has said.

Human rights advocates are opposed to the law’s demand that groups defined as Christians profess “the belief in Jesus Christ as God and Savior and an acceptance of the Holy Trinity” as a prerequisite for registering. This, they say, would ensure the Armenian Church’s favored position at the expense of persecuted minorities such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

OSCE officials sponsored a forum in Yerevan Friday that included “60 representatives of religious organizations and communities, the National Assembly, civil society and international organizations,” and focused on new amendments drafted by Armenia’s Justice Ministry.

The amendments were meant to bring some of the more controversial aspects of the draft law into conformity with the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Yerevan is a signatory.

The changes seek to better define what activities constitute illegal proselytism and to soften registration requirements for religious organizations as well spelling out their rights and liabilities, the OSCE said.

“The discussion enabled all parties concerned with this law to discuss its provisions and present their suggestions,” Ambassador Sergey Kapinos, head of the OSCE Office in Yerevan, said in a statement.

The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights have reviewed and criticized previous versions of the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Freedoms, and will do again with the latest amendments, Kapinos said.

Armenian First Deputy Minister of Justice Grigor Muradyan said Friday the proposed changes be presented and discussed at the 2012 spring session of the country’s National Assembly, the Armenian news agency Mediamax reported.

Before then, however, the amended version of the law will be submitted to Venice Commission for a critique, with the opinion due two months later.

The human rights group Helsinki Civil Assembly said the amendments don’t do enough to protect religious minorities from persecution.

“This draft law is meant for combating religious organizations,” Artur Sakunts of the group told Mediamax, saying the Armenian Church wouldn’t be subjected to the same criteria as minority groups.

But Michael Achapayan, head of the Shirakskaya Eparchy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, also said he was against the new amendments, telling News Armenia they give too much encouragement to religious minority groups that “try to weaken the bases and foundations of the church.”

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