The remarks and recommendations of the Commonwealth of Churches of Evangelical Family of Armenia

  • 05/07/2017

The remarks and recommendations of the Commonwealth of Churches of Evangelical Family of Armenia concerning the bill presented 01.06.2017 by the Ministry of Justice of RA aimed at “making amendments and additions to the law “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Organizations”


Considering the fact that the present Draft law is the amended and edited version of the prototypical bill “On Freedom of Conscience and Religion” developed in 2011, we should note that it is improved, rid of some inappropriate restrictions and prohibitions, although is not free of a number of troublesome points.
The following are our remarks and recommenadtions in accordance with the sequence of articles.

1. Firstly, in Article 1. a 2nd part was added from which it is perceived that, in case of entry into force, the present bill will have power over all religious organizations except for the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church, the relations of which with the state are regulated by a separate law. Does this imply a differentiated approach on the legal platform which may result in an increase of discrimination towards other churches and their followers in everyday life and in law-implementing practice?
Having great respect for the Mother See and accordingly valuing the historical role and input of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the spiritual life of the Armenian people, we certainly do not object that the state may have a special attitude towards the historical church and regulate its relationship with the latter by a separate law.
At the same time, we think that the Ministry of Justice should point out the legal guarantees by which all citizens of RA will be equal before the law and will not be restricted in their rights despite their religious affiliation.

2. In point 1.2 of Article 3 (religious association: an association of physical persons established for the purpose of jointly professing and disseminating the belief of the participants as well as meeting other religious needs of the members of the association;),it is suggested to omit the expression “as well as” from the definition of religious association, and make the following addition at the end: “as well as having full participation in public life.”

3. There is a need for clarification as to why the responsibility of the Authorized Body is given to the State Revenue Committee adjunct to the Government of the Republic of Armenia by point 1.3 of Article 3. Is the State Revenue Committee the competent institution for assuming the responsibility of the Authorized Body in the given sphere?

4. Part 3 of Article 4 dedicated to the guarantees for securing the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, holds that any discrimination on grounds of the religious affiliation of the person or his/her attitude to religion shall be prohibited.
While welcoming the inclusion of such a provision, we believe that for the application of this guarantee in public relations and the everyday life, it is necessary to provide certain tools of legal mechanisms; otherwise, it will have a declarative nature and, in the best case, remain a goodwill expressed by law.
In this context, we signify the removal of unnecessary restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion from the legislative acts of the Republic of Armenia. Specifically, we can point out that a number of laws contain a provision according to which an official working in a certain sphere does not have the right to be a member of any religious organization.
Such provisions are present in the laws “On Military service” (article 1, part 3, point 3), “On Police service” (article 39, part 7), “On National Security service” (article 43, part 1, point 8), “On Penitentiary Service” (article 32, part 7, point 1), “On Rescue Service” (article 39, part 1, point 1), “On Judicial Acts Compulsory Enforcement Service” (article 30, part 1, point 7), etc.
In fact, the aforementioned provisions limit the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in work relations in a generalized and absolute manner.
We think that membership to a religious organization itself cannot be absolutely limited. The law may prohibit the abuse of official position due to religious motives or performance of religious acts while carrying out official duties.
It is our conviction that the following provision of the law “On Persecutor’s Office” (Article 43) is better formulated: point 2 of part 5 does not hold that a prosecutor a priori does not have the right to be a member of a religious organization, but rather that a prosecutor does not have the right to “use his/her official position for the interest of political parties, religious and other social unions; advocate a certain attitude towards those as well as perform other political or religious activities while carrying out his/her official duties.”
Such a legal regulation is not only precise, clear and definite, but also proportional.

5. In the chapter “Limitations of exercise of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion,» point 2 of the 2nd part of Article 5 is vaguely-formed:
“2. Exercise of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion shall be limited, where:
(2) there is reliable information that a person or a group of persons is a member of or participates in, organizes the activities of an organization, which aims to threaten the state security of the Republic of Armenia, overthrow its constitutional order, weaken its ability of defense, engage in terrorist activities or coerce a person to convert to another religion;”
It is not at all understandable whose freedom of expression is to be limited in case of reliable information on illegal actions – of the person or group of persons, or of the religious association?
In the context of this point it is unclear whether the person or group of persons being members of a religious association at the same time have membership or participation in the organization aiming to threaten state security, or whether the organization that the person or group of persons have membership or participation in is itself a religious association aiming to threaten state security.
After all, it is unclear whether this law presupposes individual or collective measure of responsibility.
It is being suggested to give the content of this point a maximally clear and particular formulation as well as avoid setting a collective responsibility for illegal actions carried out by a single individual regardless of the offender’s religious or church affiliation.

6. It is being suggested to add “or otherwise” after the expression “church ceremonial acts or other worship services” in part 1 of Article 6, like it is done in part 4 of Article 4.

7. According to 2nd part of Article 8 a religious organization must have a charter stipulating certain provisions including:
5) requirements for members and procedure for membership, as well as procedure for leaving the organization;
6) rights and obligations of the members;
7) cases of and procedure for removing a member from the organization;
In 2nd part of Article 11 it is mentioned that religious organizations must keep record of their members.
We find it necessary to note that the concept of membership in religious organizations is not a definite concept. In fact, there are religious associations which hold no principle of membership at all; therefore, they also do not have requirements towards their members. Other notions are used instead of membership, such as follower, confessor, believer, visitor, participant, and this does not imply a formal legal relationship between the religious organization and its followers.
Besides, the obligation to keep a record of members would be an unnecessary burden on religious organizations as well as force them to collect information about their followers – something which can in no way be considered desirable.
Taking into account the above-mentioned, it is suggested to exclude from the Draft the obligation for religious organizations to register their members as well as to radically revise the points in the charter concerning membership.

8. By 3rd part of Article 8 the authors of the bill suggest to apply Articles 10-12 of the Law of the Republic of Armenia “On non-governmental organizations” to the relations pertaining to establishment of religious organizations; however, those Articles contain contradictions with some requirements found in this bill.
It is being suggested to omit this provision and replace it with a separate point on the order of creation of religious organizations, avoiding any confusion between non governmental organizations and religious associations.

9. It is being suggested to make some amendments and additions in the section on the rights of religious organizations.

9.1. At the end of point 1.4 of Article 10 on conducting ceremonial acts by a religious organization (“practice religious services, rites and ceremonial acts in places of worship and premises belonging thereto, places of pilgrimage and other places intended therefor, as well as in graveyards, houses and apartments of citizens, hospitals, assisted living facilities, places of imprisonment, military units, at the request of the citizens, who are members of that religious organization and are located there,”),
it is suggested to omit the words “members of that religious organization” and only leave “at the request of the citizens who are located there”, as there is no ground for rejecting the request of the people who are not members or followers of that religious association.

9.2. In point 1.5 of Article 10 (“create respective religious education groups for the religious education of their members and the children thereof under the age of 14, at the consent of the parents, using, for such purposes, the premises belonging or allocated thereto,”),
it is suggested to replace the expression “their members” with “the persons who have expressed such desire” for which this draft sets no prohibitions.

9.3. In point 1.8 of Article 10 (“establish ties with the religious organizations of other countries,”),
after the expression “the religious organizations of” it is suggested to add “the Republic, as well as.”
Also, it is suggested to restore the continuation of this point which is present in both the current law and the previous bill, and which has not been included in the Draft due to unknown reasons. The continuation is as follows: “to invite their representatives, to send their faithful abroad to participate in pilgrimages, meetings and other religious events as well as for educational and rest purposes.”

9.4. In point 2.3 of Article 10 it is suggested to restore the following provision present in both the current law and the previous bill: “Religious organizations shall pay no tax on the monetary and other gifts that they may receive.”

9.5. It is suggested to restore the following right under a point 1.9 in Article 10: “To train members for clergy or for scientific and pedagogical purposes for their spiritual centers as well as educational institutions created by them.”

9.6. Among the rights introduced in 2nd part of Article 10, it is being suggested to restore the following rights guaranteed by international conventions:
“9) To satisfy the religious-spiritual needs of their believers.
10) To establish rehabilitation centers for the purpose of conducting spiritual and social rehabilitation works with the homeless, drunkards, drug addicts, gamblers and other vulnerable group representatives.
11) To rent halls and other areas for the purpose of conducting religious and church ceremonial acts.
12) To make use of news media in order prescribed by the law.
13) To engage in publishing activities in order prescribed by the law.”

9.7. Based on the availability of information concerning “other peculiarities of the activities” in a religious organization’s charter mentioned in point 2.20 of Article 8, it is being suggested to conclude the list of rights in the following way:
“14) Practice an activity deriving from other attributes of the religious organization in accordance with the legislation of the Republic of Armenia.”

10. In point 2.3 of Article 11 on the obligations of religious associations (“provide documents, related to its activities, to the Authorized Body within reasonable time limits, at the lawful and reasoned request of the Authorized Body, for the purpose of checking the compliance with the requirements of this Law,”),
it is suggested to replace the vague formulation “documents, related to its activities” with an exhaustive list of the documents to be provided.

11. In 4th part of Article 11 the limitation according to which religious organizations may not be financed by their spiritual centers abroad has been maintained.
Concerning this, we have earlier mentioned that such a prohibition is not reasonable and legitimate. First of all, it will affect churches and religious organizations of different national belonging operating in Armenia (e.g. Russian Orthodox Church, Georgian Orthodox Church, the Assyrian community and other religious associations), which might serve as a precedent for similar restriction towards Armenian churches in different countries of the world.
It is being suggested to formulate the aforementioned provision as follows: “Religious associations cannot finance or be financed by political parties.”

12. Point 2.3 of Article 12 holds that the state shall not finance the activities of religious associations. This provision contradicts the 2nd part of Article 13 of this Draft, which requires accountability in case public funds (funds of state or local self-government bodies and other bodies or legal persons disposing of public funds) have been the source of property of a religious organization.
It is being suggested to omit any one of the aforementioned provisions.

13. In 3rd part of Article 12 by which the state recognizes the secrecy of confession, it is being suggested to restore the continuation present in both current law and the previous bill – that is: “In the investigative and judicial instances, an ordained priest cannot be interrogated as a witness on the circumstances of the case which became known to him during confession.”

14. Taking into account the significance of the bill and the necessity of professional interactions around it between interested parties, it is being suggested to extend the time provided for public discussion of the Draft by three months.

“Unity” church
of Evangelical Faith Christians of Armenia,
Rev. Dr. Rubik Tumanyan

Evangelical Church of Yerevan,
Rev. Dr. Levon Bardakchyan

“Word of Life” church
of Evangelical Faith Christians of Armenia
Rev. Dr. Artur Simonyan

Union of Evangelical Faith Churches of Armenia
Rev. Dr. Rafael Grigoryan

Evangelical-Baptist Church of Shirak Region,
Rev. Rubik Pahlevanyan

Yerevan, 30.06.2017