Persecution of Hare Krishna Members in Armenia

The following is a report prepared by ISKCON Communications Europe on the persecution of Hare Krishna members in Armenia. This case has been taken up by Amnesty International and a report on the following events has been prepared by the US embassy in Yeravan, which will be included in the US Department of State's 1995 Human Rights Report on Armenia. The Swedish Foreign Office will also include this case in their 1995 report. The case has also been reported to the Office for International Human Rights of the CSCE. A letter writing campaign directed at the President of Armenia was begun in September of this year and demonstrations have taken place at various Armenian embassies around the world.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON or the Hare Krishna Movement) was introduced to Armenia in 1981. Within a few years a group of some thirty to forty followers formed an association for the practice of their religion in the capital of Armenia, Yerevan.

During the Soviet regime in Armenia, members of ISKCON lived under the constant supervision of the KGB, in hiding, on the run and later in prison and mental institutions.

In 1985 and in 1986 the KGB orchestrated two court cases against members of the society. As a result of these two cases eleven Hare Krishnas' were imprisoned in State prisons, labour camps and psychiatric hospitals. Among them were Karen Saakyan, Armen Saakyan, Suren Karapetyan, Sarkis Ogandzhanyan, Gagik Buniatyan, Agvan Arytyunyan, Armine Hrtyan, Ara Akopyan and Armen Sarkisyan.

One of those imprisoned that time, Sarkis Ogandzhanyan (23 yrs. of age), died on December 27th. 1987, from tuberculosis and malnutrition in labour camp YU-25/"B" situated in the Orenburg Territory of the Russian Republic. He had entered the camp as a perfectly healthy young man and he was due to have been released in January 1988.

Another member, Martik Zhamkochyan (25 yrs. of age), died in a psychiatric hospital in the Sovetashen District of Yerevan in July 1986. In the psychiatric hospital he was force-fed with raw eggs, which were administered through a tube and he was simultaneously injected with large doses of psycho-pharmacological drugs. After several days of such "treatment" he died.

In 1985, in Sweden the Committee to Free Soviet Hare Krishnas was formed. The Committee publicised the violations against civil, religious and human rights surrounding the persecution of the Soviet Hare Krishnas. Many human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International, Helsinki Watch, International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and The Committee for Human Rights in Eastern Europe took part in the campaign to free the Soviet Hare Krishnas. Due to the efforts of the Committee and world-wide support for the campaign most of the Hare Krishna members imprisoned were released between 1987-1988.

In 1989-90 the proposed transition to a more democratic society promised hope for religious freedom. In 1990 ISKCON was, for the first time, officially registered as a religion in Armenia. There are now about 250 ISKCON members resident in Armenia and ISKCON maintains congregations in the towns of Gyumri, Kirovakan, Eghnadzor, Kapan and Ashtarak.

Social contribution
Even before the official registration, ISKCON had started various religious and missionary programmes which included Hare Krishna Food for Life, a humanitarian food distribution programme for the needy. In December 1988, three days after a devastating earthquake in Leninakan (now Gyumri) a group of thirty Hare Krishna members (both from Russia and Armenia) went to Leninakan and started free food distribution. The money for the programme was collected internationally. For about five months 1000 free meals were distributed daily to the victims of the earthquake.

Unfortunately the threat of religious tolerance was short-lived. Despite attempts by ISKCON members to make a positive social contribution and to live in peaceful co-existence with other religious communities; our members in Armenia have noted an increase in animosity towards them which seemed to parallel an increase of nationalism and a revival of traditional religions. ISKCON's charitable activities have recently been prohibited by a direct order from Mr. Khachik Stamboltsian, chairman of the Supreme Council Commission on Refugees and Emergencies.

In spite of the restrictions on ISKCON's free food distribution programme, ISKCON members continue to distribute 1,000 free meals each day in Armenia, especially in hospitals.

Recent problems in Armenia
Below we chronologically document the more recent development of systematic harassment of Hare Krishna members, by priests of the majority Armenian Apostolic church, police and local government officials.

On July 10th., 1992 the Hare Krishna temple in Yerevan was attacked by arsonists. Temple members managed to extinguish the fire which damaged the temple building and two cars owned by ISKCON. ISKCON appealed to the Commission for Human Rights of the Supreme Council of Armenia and local police, but the complaint was ignored.

In June 1993 a few members of the Society went to the Republic of Nagorny Karabakh to open a free food distribution centre for local people. On June 12th. ISKCON members and Mr. L. Gulyan, the Head of the Department of Refugees and Humanitarian Aid reached an agreement to co-operate together in order to help the region's under-privileged. Mr. Gulyan promised to provide ISKCON with premises for their free food distribution in Stepanakert city and other settlements in the R.N.K. In Stepanakert ISKCON was granted facility to distribute free food on the premises of a former restaurant. Within a month of the programme starting, a group of armed men broke into the premises and demanded, on behalf of the government, that our members leave the country within 24 hours. ISKCON's members appealed to the State Minister Zirair Pogosyan, who refused to help and actually declared to support the demands of the intruders.

On September 23 1993 Mikhael Unjugulyan, a Krishna devotee, was severely beaten before the inhabitants in his village of origin, Oshakan. His assailant was a priest from the local Armenian Orthodox Church, a Father Gevork. A vain appeal for justice was made by the victim to the police in the Ashtrak region. His complaint was ignored. The incident was witnessed and can be verified by many inhabitants of the village.

In April 1994, thirty tons of religious books were dispatched from ISKCON in Moscow for the temple in Yerevan. The books were seized by the customs at Masis station before they reached Yerevan. Despite many appeals to the Council for Religion Affairs which is supposed to give permission to receive religious literature, the books are still being detained by customs at Masis station. Initially the Council for Religious Affairs instructed the customs station not to release the books but later claim to have written to ask them to release the books. ISKCON has not received any of the books nor have members been informed as to the location of their literature. It should be noted that religious books do not require customs clearance in order to be imported into Armenia.

On April 18, 1994 Hare Krishna member Artur Khachatryan was attacked by a group of fifteen members of the Armenian Army in an Officer's Club in Yerevan. He was severely beaten and had to be hospitalised. The religious books he carried with him were burned. The case was reported to the police station in the Spandaryan district of Yerevan. The appointed police investigator was a Captain Asatryan who decided not to question or arrest the offenders, although their names are known to the police.

On July 4, 1994 two female members of the Hare Krishna Society in Yerevan, Anaite Arzumanian and Mariana Dorunz, travelled to the neighbouring town of Sisyan, to distribute religious literature and minister to local sympathisers. They were intercepted on route by two priests of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Father Narek from Sisyan and an American priest of the Avat Mission (a branch of the Armenian Apostolic church), Father Zenob. Supported by soldiers of the Armenian army, the priests confiscated more than 150 books and proceeded to light a bonfire with them, an act which attracted much local attention. The priests and their supporters then forcibly ripped the clothing off the women, twisted their arms, tore their religious neckbeads off their necks and threw these articles into the bonfire. This scene was witnessed by many of the local people. This incident was reported to Mr. Robert Patterson of the American embassy in Armenia, and to the special correspondent of Espress-chronika in Armenia, Michail Dabasyan.

Krishna devotees appealed for justice in these cases to the Armenian Prosecutor and the Committee for Human Rights at the Armenian Supreme Soviet. The only response came from an investigator, Mr Kroyan, which consisted only of a threatening commitment to investigate all Hare Krishna activities in Armenia.

On July 26, 1994 another ISKCON member Karo Mkrtchyan was seriously beaten and threatened with murder by six members of the Dashnaktzusyun Party (a nationalist political party). Again any religious books or paraphernalia he carried were confiscated. He was also told that if he was seen again in the city after twenty four hours, he would be killed on the spot. On July 31, 1994 in the town of Goris a live phone-in interview with the Patriarch of the South Armenian region, Bishop Abraham was broadcast on the local state cable television. During the interview a question was raised about the status of ISKCON. The bishop replied that it was all the work of Satan and that the books sold by ISKCON represent a real social danger, diverting people from the path of God. He claimed to have formed a committee, in the local Cultural House for Youth with the aim of collecting all the ISKCON books from the population in exchange for free Bibles (this facility was also announced on local radio). He promised to publicly burn the collected literature.

On August 28th. ten armed thugs stormed the Hare Krishna Temple in Yerevan. They completely vandalised the place of worship, desecrated the altar, and severely assaulted the temple President, Ivan Dallakyan. The attack lasted more than twenty minutes. During the attack ISKCON members tried to report the attack to the police who only sent a police patrol to the scene after four attempts at trying to contact them. The police car only stayed long enough for the police officer to declare, "We are not going to protect people like you." After the incident, Ivan Dallakyan himself called the police and asked for protection. He gave the police the names and addresses of the people who attacked the temple; but again, there was no sign of response from the police.

On the morning of August 31st, the same people phoned and warned that they would come again at 19.00 hours. Temple members called the police at 17.00 hours and requested protection. A police patrol arrived after a short time and stayed only fifteen minutes, explaining that they had no time to wait. At the appointed time four people arrived at the temple. They started to abuse the temple residents and threatened violence. Before long a scuffle ensued and suddenly, after just a few moments, a fleet of fourteen police cars appeared on the scene. The policemen surrounded the temple and arrested all the residents. Seventeen Hare Krishna members were taken into custody. In the police station the prisoners were abused and beaten.

Subsequently sixteen of those arrested have been freed from the state prison. They are, nonetheless, being forced to stay under house arrest for an unspecified investigation period.

As a result of the attack on the temple one Hare Krishna member, Boris Agagabyan, was hospitalised with head injuries and a severely damaged nose. Another member, Mkrtchyan Karo has suffered severe head injuries, inflicted by a metal bar. Others also had to receive hospital treatment.

On the 3rd. September a member called Grigoryan Kamo was arrested by the local police and taken into custody. During the night he was badly beaten in his cell by the same policemen who had beaten the others on the 31st. On the 6th. September Grigoryan Kamo was transferred to a psychiatric prison hospital.

Media incitement
A mass media campaign has been orchestrated against ISKCON in the last six months of 1994. The reportage is sensationalistic and sectarian. When Ara Akopyan (an ISKCON member) asked Voskan Maminonyan, a correspondent from the Erkir newspaper, why he published blatant lies about ISKCON, the correspondent replied, 'When a war is being fought against a political enemy, then all means are to be used, both honest and dishonest.'

At the time of publication the whereabouts of the confiscated books is still unknown and fourteen ISKCON members are still undergoing investigation, with the constant threat of court action. Since the beginning of the International campaign things have certainly quietened down in Armenia, illustrating how effective outside pressure can be, but the threat to ISKCON members rights and freedom is still as real as ever.

The immediate aim of the campaign is to see the return of the literature to ISKCON and the dropping of charges of incitement against ISKCON members. Eventually we would hope to see a change in the laws governing the registration of religion in Armenia, a change which reflects a just and non-sectarian approach to religion and worship.

Update: March 1995
After various attempts to secure possession of the confiscated books ISKCON members heard from reliable political sources that the literatures had been burned. Further information suggested that the order to burn the books came from the head of the Armenian KGB, David Shahnazarian. They were reportedly burnt in the ovens of the Thermal power plant in Yerevan, mixed with liquid fuel. Informants claim that this was done in reply to the international reaction to the reported persecution of Hare Krishna members in Armenia.

On the 16th. March 1995 a committee was formed comprising of the president of ISKCON in Armenia, a representative of the US Embassy in Armenia, the head of Customs, the head of the local station police and the head of the railway station where the books were held. This committee proceeded to unlock the container of books. The container was opened and it was found to be empty. ISKCON in Armenia has lodged an official complaint regarding this but has been advised that it may not be wise to pursue the case seriously.