Freedom of conscience and belief: some definitions are “vague and absurd”


Interview with the Chairman of the “Cooperation for Democracy center” Stepan Danielyan

Mr. Danielyan, recently a group of NGOs stated that “Human Rights Protection Strategy of the Republic of Armenia” does not reflect the real situation with human rights in Armenia and it should be revised. In your opinion, to what extent the Strategy ensures the freedom of conscience and belief? 

The Human Rights Protection Strategy has been developed by the National Security Council (NSC). Some organizations submitted written suggestions to the NSC. However, for some reasons, the NSC did not respond to the submissions and these suggestions were not incorporated in the Strategy. Such approach shows their working style. Though, in their strategy it is stated that they should actively cooperate with the civil society.

The document has been adopted, the President has signed it but it is not a dogma, amendments are possible and we will go on with suggestions.

Concerning the section on freedom of conscience and belief, definitions used there are vague; some of the notions used are not defined either by the law or by any other official and international documents. Particularly, it concerns the use of such notions as “soul hunting», «destructive sect”, etc.

For instance, the notion “proper soul hunting” is used in the Strategy which is absurd. There is an international notion “proselytism”, change of religion, which is one of the expressions of the freedom of belief: everyone can change her/his religion according to the own will. However, there is a notion of non-proper change of religion. If somebody is forced to change her/his religion under duress or deception, it is a crime which should be punished.

From this perspective, the Law on Freedom of conscience and religion adopted the notion of “soul hunting” which is not a legal term and its meaning is unclear. The notion was translated into English as “proselytism”, thus the experts from the Venice Commission suggested differentiating proper and improper proselytism. After the translation into Armenian the notions proper and improper soul hunting were applied.  Wrong terminology and incorrect translation led to the absurd notions which are used in the Strategy.

It is important to have clear definitions. Wrong definitions lead to arbitrary application and interpretation.

Any notion in the human rights realm should be clearly defined and explained to ensure its correct and proper application in practice.

Does your organization make steps to clarify definitions included in the Strategy?

In the spring of the last year while presenting the Draft Strategy Artur Baghdasaryan spoke about the need to develop a national strategy against the destructive sects, a number of religious organizations registered in Armenia, submitted letters to Artur Baghdasaryan with the request to clarify whether they belong to the destructive sects or not and whether they are to be combated, too. The answer was that the sects undermine traditions and the system of national peculiarities and they should be combated. 

In the next letter it was requested to specify the laws containing such definitions and where the list of national peculiarities may be found. The answer was that the Strategy is on the stage of elaboration and there are no definitions yet. If the NSC President, who prepares the Strategic document on National Security and is planning to monitor the implementation, has no idea about the definitions he spoke out, how this person is going to protect human rights in Armenia and ensure the implementation of this Strategy.

Last year the research “Problems of religious education in schools of Armenia” was published. To resume the research, what is the situation concerning the freedom of conscience in the school system?

The Human Rights Strategy contains a very important provision. It states that the religious education in schools should be provided in compliance with the Toledo guiding principles.  This is a document developed by the OSCE experts and contains recommendations to State Parties on the teaching about religions in schools of their countries. It is a key document giving a good tool to ensure freedom of conscience in schools.

As a matter of fact, we have Minister of Education who calls to combat destructive sects implying that all the religious organizations are among them. School teachers and directors take it as a recommendation and start a struggle with pupils who belong to other religious groups.

To avoid ungrounded statements, we have conducted around hundred interviews, among others the Head of the Center of Christian Education was also interviewed who is responsible for training and selection of teachers who teach the subject “The History of the Armenian Church” in schools. We have also interviewed the staff of education departments, school directors, teachers, parents and children in the regions. We have talked to religious leaders who supervise schools and have certain responsibilities which are not defined by law because in the Armenian law “On Education” it is stressed out that the education in Armenia is secular. 

What kind of violations has been recorded?

There are cases when teachers blame pupils in the classroom; there are cases when afterwards children beat their classmates, mock them because their parents are followers of other religious beliefs. All this is included in the research report.

We have also presented the recommendations to relevant public officials on the actions directed at the improvement of the situation.

You have suggested to make the subject “The History of the Armenian school” optional, to rename it into “The history of religions” or revise the content of the textbook. Did you get a feedback from the authorized public bodies?

Our primary goal was to present the situation. There is no feedback from the Ministry of Education and Science or NSC. The situation is still the same. Moreover, there are grounds to state that the situation is worsening. For that reason, during the discussion of the Strategy we have made a recommendation to the Prime Minister and ministers to consider the staff of the NSC as a target group and organize training sessions for them to raise their awareness and professionalism in the field of human rights.

Curriculum, teaching methodology or the textbook is the problem?

There are problems in all mentioned directions. For instance, the textbook for the 10th grade has nothing to do with the history. The religion and nation are merged. I would allow myself to state that it is totally raving.

The teaching methodology also raises concerns because kids are forced to conduct religious ceremonies; they are questioned about their religious belonging. The subject is contradictive in principal. 

Is it a common problem for all schools?

We can state that it was noted everywhere. I would not say that teachers realize what they do. Particularly in regions teachers mainly are very kind people. There is no personal problem with them. They are just confident that they are doing a patriotic job when persecuting or persuading to change the religion.

In practice there are cases in kinder gardens when during the performances kids pray and sing religious songs. The cases are wide spread. This should not be perceived as a violation of the rights of religious minorities. There are people who are atheists or agnostics. In my opinion, majority of population of Armenia are agnostics but this is another topic for discussion. The rights of these people are violated as well.

What is the reason? Maybe there is a need for legislative changes?  

There are laws in force, for example the education in Armenia is secular. However, they do not work. There is a merger between Prime Minister, Minister of Education, Ararat eparchy and Catholicos. We observe that this merge leads to such consequences. The situation is regulated as a result of personal relations between people in power, but not according to the law. There are registered cases when church invades the realm of the science. During the defense of the thesis they give positive or negative feedback. This mainly concerns the fields of history, sociology, and pedagogy. There are many cases when the negative feedback from church led to the situation when the thesis was not defended or in the case of positive feedback a bad thesis is defended. Here we expect developments.

To sum up, which are the needs in the field of freedom of conscience and belief?

Firstly, the laws should work. Secondly, mentality should be changed.

Interview by Haykuhi Barseghyan