Ter-Petrosyan’s government was the most austere: the freedom of conscience granted by the three presidents

The experts say the worst period for the religious groups was Levon Ter-Petrosyan's presidency. Image courtesy of PanPhoto.
The experts say the worst period for the religious groups was Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s presidency. Image courtesy of PanPhoto.

Evaluating the state of freedom of confession in Armenia during the past 23 years the theologians and experts on freedom of conscience declare that the worst period for the religious groups was during the first president Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s office.

The second president Robert Kocharyan’s office period is considered  relatively peaceful and tolerant. And Serzh Sarksyan’s presidency is distinguished by the  more systematized intolerance.

Doctor of Philosophy in Theology Armen Lusyan stated that three conventional historical periods in the development  of relations between the state and the church occurred, and the preferences, outlooks, sympathies and the aversions of high-rank authorities played decisive role in each of the periods, ‘These periods significantly coincide with the periods of presidency of the three presidents of Armenia. For example, the first period coincides with the  first president Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s office, 1991-1998. This is the earliest period when this sphere was on mutable grounds in Armenia.  Apart from Armenian Apostolic Church other churches and religious organizations were also working very actively, the tension was great because there was information shortage on religious organizations. Without information there is no trust; there were no people who were to make inquiries and contacts,  attempt to regulate the sphere,’ says Lusyan, who is also the Public Relations officer at  ‘Word of Life’ religious organization.

The theologian states that the second phase coincided with the second president Robert Kocharyan’s office period and according to his account it was notable for the atmosphere of wider tolerance: ‘We can’t say that this period was not implicated with problems but during that time the tension of religious intolerance that had accumulated in previous years had mitigated.’

Lusyan noticed that the third period conditionally coincided with the third president Serzh Sargsyan’s office:  ‘That period had two important distinctions; on one hand the formation of more inter-allied relations between the state and Armenian Apostolic Church, the emphasizing the role of the Church, that can’t be  noted about Robert Kocharyan’s office years. On other hand, the president’s rather public policy on religious affiliation that according to the latter must not become a separatist factor for Armenians.’

Ahead of the elections back in 2008 Serzh Sargsyan noted that he considered Armenian nationhood more important than the confession exercised and he yet again confirmed his position before his second reelection.

In his interview to “Andin” magazine around January 2013 he said, ‘…or he was born into a Catholic family by fate. I have personally met wonderful people in the south of Russia who consider themselves Armenians and fluently speak Armenian in their Hemsin dialect but those people rather their ancestors had had converted to Islam by fate. They are my kin brothers and sisters just as all those Armenians who consider themselves Christians or Atheists.’

During Serzh Sargsyan's presidency intolerance was systematized. In the photo: Serzh Sargsyan is meeting Garegin B the Catholicos of All Armenians and Aram A the Catholicos of the Great House and the Holy See of Cilicia.  Image courtesy of president.am
During Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency intolerance was systematized. In the photo: Serzh Sargsyan is meeting Garegin B the Catholicos of All Armenians and Aram A the Catholicos of the Great House and the Holy See of Cilicia.
Image courtesy of president.am

‘President Serzh Sargsyan’s statementwas  in this sense quite unprecedented and courageous. The goal was not to question Armenian identity by religious, social, political or ideological views,’ the theologian adds.

Assessing the freedom of confession in Armenia during the last 23 years the editor of religions.am website, head of “Partnership for Democracy” NGO Stepan Danielyan presents the same image, ‘The harshest situation was during Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s presidency,’ he said. ‘When literally onslaughts were taking place. The offices of religious organizations were constantly under attack, beatings, assaults, property damages were taking place. In some cases the attackers even attempted robberies. It was in 1992-95,  and according to my information it was organized by Vazgen Sargsyan on behalf of the state.’

During April-May 1995 the members of “Erkrapah kamavorakanneri miutyun” (“Volunteer Defenders’ Association”) run by the Minister of Defense of the time Vazgen Sargsyan attacked the gathering places of eight religious organizations on behalf of the minister’s errands, beat the believers and took approximately 15 men to military police station.

The Primate of Armenian Evangelical Union Rene Levonian expressed his opinion about that vandalism, ‘This is a black spot on the first period of independence of our Armenia.’ (armenianow.com 25.01.2008)

‘This was committed under the surveillance of policemen, so that nobody prevented the beatings and the assault,’ said Danielyan. ‘A few “erkrapahs” (volunteer defenders) have told me that they had successfully participated in those assaults. Severe assaults also took place at Krishna community at their place of worship on Baghramyan street; some attacks on protestant churches   also took place. The main grounding for these actions was the struggle against the duck-outs in the army.’

Danielyan reminded that in his interview to religions.am website the Prime minister of the time Hrant Bagratyan had confessed that the violence was organized by the government and that he was against it, ‘The government interfered which caused huge internal debates. I was one of those who simply prevented it. There were government members who supported that process and Ejmiatsin also wasn’t against the violence. Nevertheless I am responsible for the whole government and yes it happened and that was a huge mistake, my personal reaction was drastically negative and I put an end to it.’

Nobody was held responsible for that violence, the prosecution offices and the police were refusing to file the believers’ appeals (armenianow.com, 25.01.2008).

Danielyan said that in 1995-1998 media would regularly report that the religious organizations were distorting the national unity and that they presented a threat to the country. ‘Back then the propaganda was quite active, both in printed press and electronic media, including the then-called State and nowadays Public Television,’ Danielyan said.

Armen Lusyan, 'The second phase coincides with the second president Robert Kocharyan's office period that was relatively positive.'  Image courtesy of 2rd.am
Armen Lusyan, ‘The second phase coincides with the second president Robert Kocharyan’s office period that was relatively positive.’
Image courtesy of 2rd.am

According to the analyst the situation was relatively good during Robert Kocharyan’s presidency. ‘I think the fact that Rene Levonian (former Senior Pastor of Armenian Evangelical Church) was his adviser also played its role and when incidents took place, the state would intervene to mitigate the situation. And that as far as I’m concerned was Kocharyan’s directive and in certain sense it could be considered a positive development.’

According to Danielyan the situation aggravated during Serzh Sargsyan’s times. Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan’s position running the government since 2008 also plays a role since The Vicar of the Ararat Patriarchal Diocese Archbishop Navasard Kchoyan is his business partner.

‘The anti-propaganda entered several phases,’ Danielyan said about Sargsyan’s presidency period. ‘Religious organizations were being announced rancorous, then this process ascended to the state level. Three attempts were made to adopt a discriminative legislation on the freedom of conscience but the international organizations such as Council of Europe and the Venice Commission foreclosed this initiative. Those organizations were acting upon the government and in a sense they were mitigating such policy.’

Post Scriptum

In his research called “Relationship Between the State and the Church in Contemporary Armenia: the Situation and the Development Perspectives” Armen Lusyan notes that the relations between the state and the church in Armenia are typical for the following models:

  • separation model: the state and the church are separated,
  • integrative model: an inter-allied relationship exists between the state and the specific religious organization,
  • partnership model: the state implements a full social partnership  with the  Armenian Apostolic Church and a limited partnership with other religious organizations,
  • ruling or dominant church model: Armenian Apostolic Church objectively holds a dominant position in the religious sphere and the state-church relationship mainly develop between the state authorities and that given church.

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