There were reports military conscripts faced pressures favoring the AAC. Religious and civil society groups urged the government to clarify laws pertaining to religion. Minority religious groups faced obstacles in obtaining building permits for places of worship, discrimination in education, the military, law enforcement, and public sector employment, preferential government support for the AAC and its continued presence in public life, and negative commentary from government officials.
According to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious groups, conscripts beginning their service in the army were required to fill out a questionnaire at the military commissariats, where they had to indicate their religious affiliation. Reportedly the formulation of this question was whether a person was a member of the AAC or a “sect.” According to a Helsinki Committee report published during the year and covering events in 2014, there were instances when military clergy subjected members of minority religious organizations to “explanatory and moral instructions.” The report cited one instance when a religious minority member performing mandatory military service was forced to say prayers under the guidance of an AAC priest and pressured by his commanding officer to abandon his church. According to the report, the recruit took part in AAC religious ceremonies against his will for eight months.
There continued to be media reports of AAC group baptisms occurring regularly during service in the army with the support of the army command. The media reports cited groups of four or more conscripts or other soldiers undergoing baptism at the same time. Unlike previous years, however, minority religious groups did not report any specific instances of members being pressured into undergoing baptisms. A January report in the privately owned Aravot daily cited a report by the father of a young evangelical man, who felt he had been pressured into being baptized in the army by the AAC in 2014. The same report quoted an AAC clergy member who denied that anyone was pressured into baptism or that there was discrimination in the military against minority religious groups. According to the clergy member, the mission of the AAC in the army was to make everyone acquainted with the Church and with the country’s history and to give soldiers spiritual knowledge; within this program, if there were soldiers affiliated with “sects,” “we do not discriminate, but considering them our lost soldiers we keep them in more warmth and try to keep them away from the wrong road.” In November the Ministry of Defense (MOD) announced the establishment of the Center for Human Rights and Integrity, with a mandate to promote and protect human rights – including minority rights and religious tolerance – in the military.
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 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 of the Council of Europe. Religious minority and civil society groups also expressed concern with the amended constitution, particularly its provision permitting restrictions on religious practice for reasons of “state security,” rather than just public safety.
Representatives of several Christian minority groups reported that, due to past difficulties in renting spaces, religious organizations relied on their own facilities – new and existing – for holding gatherings. According to a number of religious groups, representatives from local governments obstructed attempts to obtain approvals of the required architectural planning studies and building and occupancy permits for houses of worship on land religious groups owned. Representatives of several minority faiths reported building permits for places of worship were only granted with the approval of the leadership of the AAC, and the AAC exercised a de facto veto on the construction by minority faiths of any new places of worship.
On July 29, the Cassation Court (except for constitutional matters, the highest judicial authority, responsible for ensuring uniform application of the law) rejected the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ final appeal against the refusal of the Yerevan mayor’s office to issue permits for building three places of worship because of “complaints from neighbors.” 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 stated purpose in applying for the permit was to use the building for a different purpose than as a place of worship.
On April 1, media reported that in 2014 the government had transferred the management of a public high school in Yerevan to the AAC based on the request of the latter. According to the government’s decision, four out of the seven members of the board of trustees of the school were appointed from the AAC. The school continued to operate nominally as a public institution. According to the country’s Helsinki Committee, the nonsecular management of the school was in violation of the law on education and the constitution.
Yezidi community representatives continued to report their dissatisfaction with the mandatory nature of the AAC history course, which they stated they considered to be religious indoctrination. NGOs, religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC continued to voice similar concerns. Religious minority groups did not report any complaints from their members about discriminatory treatment by teachers of their students during this class during the year. There were reports of some AAC clergy teaching this class.
There were media reports of visits by AAC clergy to state-funded kindergartens, including during celebration of Church holidays, as well as visits of kindergarteners to churches. A December 2014 story by Asparez online news reported that a representative of the AAC at a meeting held in the Gyumri municipality had distributed, without the Ministry of Education’s approval, a book containing religious songs to the directors of state kindergartens in the city. According to Asparez, such interventions by the AAC made it difficult for kindergarten administrators to keep the secular and religious elements of holiday celebrations distinct.
In a report the Jehovah’s Witnesses issued during the year, despite a legal provision that any donations to religious groups are tax free, the government required the Witnesses to pay “tens of thousands of euros” (tens of thousands of dollars) in value added tax (VAT) on imports of religious literature they had received as a donation and distributed free of charge within the country. According to the report, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed eight applications between 2010 and June 2015 with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), seeking a VAT exemption, after they had exhausted legal remedies within the country. The report added that the government had lowered the VAT rate in July but that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were still obliged to pay the tax at the new rate. Private businesses and secular NGOs have reported similar difficulties, but they did not have the legal avenues available to religious groups. Other religious minority groups have also reported being required to pay VAT on donations that were imported from abroad; however, they have opted not to pursue legal action.
The clergy of the AAC was the only religious organization that had access to the army through the army chaplaincy program. On October 15, the government placed these chaplains on the Ministry of Defense (MOD) payroll.
According to a report by the NGO Collaboration for Democracy, the government could use the provisions of the law prohibiting membership of law-enforcement employees and other public service employees in religious organizations, to limit the rights of those employees. Collaboration for Democracy also reported that, given the privileged role of the AAC in various state bodies, those provisions prohibiting membership in religious organizations were in practice interpreted to mean that affiliation with any religious group other than the AAC was prohibited. Collaboration for Democracy and a number of religious groups stated that the government used systematic discrimination in the military and law-enforcement bodies to remove employees who held religious views other than those of the AAC. Representatives of religious minorities reported members employed by the government who were asked to choose between their job and their faith.
As of October a total of 183 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were in the alternative labor service for conscientious objectors. A report by the national Helsinki Committee discovered no major problems with the conduct of the alternative service. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the state committee responsible for coordinating and reviewing the applications for alternative service had been cooperative, and the program was working well.
According to various religious groups and NGOs which advocated for religious tolerance and respect, discrimination towards religious organizations, other than the AAC, were mainly fueled by government rhetoric equating national identity with affiliation to the AAC.
NGOs and representatives of religious minorities stated government officials often referred disparagingly to religious groups other than the AAC as “sects,” though the officials did not define the word.
According to a news report in the Aravot daily, on September 12, an AAC church in the city of Ararat organized a march against “sects” during the celebration of a Church holiday, with the participation of the leadership of the Ararat municipality and Ararat village administration, a local military unit, a local hospital, a number of schools, and others. According to the news report, approximately 1,000 people participated in the three-mile march.
On June 10, the Armenian Youth Foundation, a government-funded foundation with activities coordinated by a member of parliament from the ruling Republican Party (RPA) and chaired by Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan, announced a series of lectures for youth it organized with the Yerevan municipality youth council and NGOs on the subject of The Destructive Activities of Nontraditional Religious Organizations. According to the announcement, the lecturers, which included priests from the AAC, aimed to teach youth about “the faith of the AAC and those of other religious organizations, the peculiarities of their influence on people, and the goals they pursued.” According to one of the organizers, they wanted youth to be able to understand what “sects” were and to work with others who were at risk of joining “sects.” Organizers also announced plans to print brochures on “religious safety” and distribute them in Yerevan and the regions, as well as use social media to raise awareness about “destructive sects.” Government officials and others referring to “sects” did not cite any organizations by name, but NGOs and others said the term was understood to mean minority Christian groups. An article in the Medialab online news portal referring to the program stated “hatred and intolerance towards religious organizations were being spread at the government level.”
High-ranking members of parliament made negative statements during speeches at the national assembly about what they called “sects, the dangers they presented for the country and the preservation of national identity, and the need to take actions against them. For example, on October 7, the deputy speaker of the national assembly urged public television and radio to increase programs where representatives of the AAC could talk about the Church’s history within the context of the fight against “sects.” The head of the RPA parliamentary faction made similar remarks, saying that a significant amount of money entered the country to hinder “our national values, our traditions, the strength of our families, our Church…these foreign sums have a serious impact on our belief…today serious money is put on sects in order to split our Church.”
Religious groups affiliated with national minorities, such as Jewish and Apostolic Assyrians, reported better relations with government institutions than did minority faiths practiced by ethnic Armenians.