Government actions affecting minority religious groups included baptisms of new military conscripts, discrimination in the army on religious grounds, obstacles to renting space for religious gatherings and building places of worship, and continued discrimination against religious minorities in the school system.
Religious groups reported that in several cases the Armenian Apostolic Church pressured military conscripts to undergo baptism together into the Armenian Apostolic faith. According to observers, in some cases new conscripts were reluctant to refuse to be baptized out of fear of being isolated and singled out. In other cases, army chaplains of the Armenian Apostolic Church and some, but not all, commanders were reportedly inquiring about the religious affiliation of conscripts and putting pressure on adherents of religions other than the Armenian Apostolic Church and on atheists to pray with Armenian Apostolic Church chaplains and attend religion classes. The government reportedly did not allow chaplains from other religious groups to visit the army.
On April 26, the Ministry of Defense hosted a “Scientific-Practical Conference on Destructive Sects and Vicious Street Habits as Threats to Defense Capacity.” In his opening remarks, Minister of Defense Seyran Ohanyan said for the protection of Armenia it was important that everyone believe in the same values, including in the Armenian Apostolic Church. In his concluding remarks, the minister thanked the participants for joining the struggle against “destructive sects.”
While the police protected and allowed some religious organizations, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to disseminate their literature in public, other groups reported the authorities arbitrarily denied them this right.
Throughout the year multiple religious groups reported difficulties with renting space for gatherings and building places of worship. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, representatives from local governments obstructed the group’s attempts to obtain approvals of the required architectural planning studies and building and occupancy permits for land they owned. An appeal by the Jehovah’s Witnesses of a 2013 decision by the Yerevan mayor’s office refusing permission to build three places of worship because of “complaints from neighbors” was ongoing. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious groups, they were more successful in obtaining building permits if this was done under the name of private individuals, or if the building was not intended to be a church.
Religious groups and civil society representatives continued to urge the government to remove the legal gaps, unclear provisions, and contradictions in the existing legislation on religion; to guarantee freedom of conscience, religion, or belief to everyone regardless of citizenship; to recognize the freedom to change religion or belief; to guarantee the freedom to manifest religion or belief in public or private; to clarify if religious organizations were entitled to legal personality and had access to it; and to make more precise and clear the scope of application of the law, as repeatedly recommended by the Venice Commission for the Council of Europe.
Human rights observers continued to express concern over the growing presence of the Armenian Apostolic Church in public education.
The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Collaboration for Democracy was denied permission to observe pilot classes of a new course on the “History of the Armenian Church/Christian Education” developed for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders by the National Institute of Education of the Ministry of Education and Science and beginning in the 2012-2013 academic year. According to a ministry official, the pilot course was an “ethics class with spiritual direction.” Local observers viewed the course as a religious instruction class with subjects including, but not limited to, the divine creation of the world, study of the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, and prayers. The NGO reported difficulties in obtaining additional details about the course content and the list of schools where the course had been introduced.
While addressing the National Assembly on May 21, Minister of Education Armen Ashotyan said the government had no intention of following the 2013 recommendation by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to revise school curricula to reflect freedom of religion and eliminate the compulsory “History of the Armenian Church” course. The minister also said the government planned to begin new programs to strengthen the “patriotic upbringing component in the education system” and that 3,000 students in elementary classes had already taken the new Christian education course.
On April 22, a group of experts supported by the Open Society Foundations-Armenia (OSFA) presented at a round table a research paper entitled “Content Analysis of the Armenian Church History Textbooks and Its Influence on Young Generations.” According to the experts, the course went beyond the history of the Armenian Church and focused on presenting the faith system, history, values, and rites of the Armenian Apostolic Church as the only acceptable religion. According to the experts, the course materials, which equated Armenian identity to affiliation with the Armenian Apostolic Church, cast doubts on other religious groups. For instance, the course materials presented Protestant movements as threats to the unity of the Armenian people. The report said the mandatory nature of the course and the exclusive role played by the church in shaping its content contradicted the secular nature of the state. According to the National Institute on Education, it had never received complaints from parents about the course.
A study published by the Council of Europe identified public schools as a place where discriminatory attitudes and stereotypes of religious minorities were formed. The study cited numerous reports that teachers and principals discriminated against religious minority children, saying they singled out the children of religious minorities, potentially creating problems for those students with their peers. Most of the objections to the course on Armenian church history reportedly came from students and parents from families affiliated with but not practicing the Armenian Apostolic faith. Children of minority Christian groups reportedly did not object to taking the class as long as their rights were respected.
Yezidi community representatives reportedly had unsuccessfully appealed to the minister of education to make the class optional for the students of their community.
As of August a total of 128 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving in the alternative labor service for conscientious objectors. The group reported its members were well-treated and said it was “very satisfied” with the government’s efforts to implement the new service created by the 2013 amendment to the law.
According to reports from multiple religious groups, discrimination against individuals who were not members of the Armenian Apostolic Church continued to be a problem in gaining employment in the public sector, especially in the public education system.