The reports about Andrew Brunson’s release are just another example of how little the media know about evangelical churches.
“The atmosphere in the country is changed, there is hope and trust over the future”, says Armenian Human Rights activist and evangelical Christian Hasmik Hovsepyan.
Christians in Armenia hope the recent changes in Armenia will help build a country with opportunities for all.
The dismantling of an old corrupt system is a big challenge, but the non-violent revolution sets the right environment for these changes to happen, believes Hasmik Hovsepyan, a Human Rights activist and advocate from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
She works for the Centre for Religion and Law, a Human Rights and research NGO, and is an expert in freedom of religion and belief issues.
“Most of the evangelical Christians I know joined the peaceful disobedience” in May, Hovsepyan told Evangelical Focus. This is “natural” because Christians have been active for years in praying for the country and building a strong “civil conscience”, she says.
Question. What was the situation in Armenia before 2018?
Answer. The reasons behind the nationwide protest movement and the “velvet revolution” were numerous: social injustice, corrupt and clan government system, poverty, inequality before law, large-scale migration, oligarchic economy whereby the rich people having connections with government officials were getting richer, the rest – getting poorer, etc. The political party governing the country for around 20 years had completely lost people’s trust. They have presented themselves as authorities that don’t care about people and country.
If we were to give an evangelical description to the previous government, we could say that they neither feared God, nor regarded men. People felt oppressed, downtrodden and disrespected by their own government. People had lost hope and optimism towards the future; they realized that it could not go on like this anymore, although it seemed that they had put up with the situation.
The situation reached a tipping point when the acting president openly broke his promise. Having ruled the country two terms and having promised to never claim the highest position of the country again, Serzh Sarkisian, nonetheless, got nominated and was later elected Prime minister by the Parliament. It became clear that the Constitution change of 2015, by which Armenia switched from presidential to parliamentary government system, chased one main purpose – for the acting president to have a chance of ruling the country, this time, as the Prime minister.
Before the Prime minister elections, opposition politician, member of the parliament Nikol Pashinyan initiated a protest march from the second city of the republic to the capital Yerevan, where the protests gradually turned into a peaceful nationwide movement and ended in a “velvet revolution” and peaceful transfer of power.
Q. Nikol Pashinyan is the new Prime Minsiter. How do people perceive him?
Nikol Pashinyan used to be a well-known journalist, editor-in-chief of a newspaper. He then became an opposition politician and was elected member of the parliament. Throughout his entire career, he acted as a politician with principal views and beliefs. He always criticized the acting government although nobody could ever imagine that, at some point, he would become leader of a nationwide movement. There was a widely believed hypothesis in Armenia that no real opposition existed and that all opposition parties in the Parliament were the “projects” of the authorities and acted exceptionally within their limitations in order to secure the discharge of public dissatisfaction and the reputation of a democratic state. However, during his protest march, people gradually began to trust and love him. We can say that Nikol Pashinyan was some kind of a revelation to people. Today he is legally appointed and fully legitimate Prime Minister who has the trust and respect of the vast majority of the nation.
We should also mention that, in one of his earlier interviews, he noted that the Gospels are the most outstanding writings in the history of mankind, and that the character of Jesus Christ struck him when he first read the New Testament as a schoolboy. According to him, when you read about Jesus Christ, you understand that He could not have been like that if He were not God. He identifies himself as a Christian who reads the Bible periodically.
Q. What are the challenges Armenia needs to face in the next few years?
A. The initial steps must be directed towards eradicating corruption and the clan system, establishing rule of law, providing a favorable and secure environment for investments. These steps will in turn have a multiplying effect: new jobs will be created, poverty will be reduced, and migration will be replaced with the opposite process – immigration.
The most essential prerequisite is present: the atmosphere in the country is changed, there is hope and trust over the future, the international prestige of Armenia has gone up sharply. Armenia has tremendous resources, including human resources, to become greater.
Q. How do the diplomatic relations with Turkey and Russia look like?
A. Armenia has strategic allied and friendly relations with Russia. Russia is an important partner of Armenia in security, military-technical and trade-economic spheres, and the new authorities do not make any drastic changes in this regard. At the same time it is expected that the high legitimacy of the current Prime Minister will allow the Armenian side to act from more dignified positions.
As for neighboring Turkey, it is unrealistic to expect positive changes in relations. Diplomatic relations have not been established between the two countries so far, the state border is closed, and there is a noteworthy circumstance of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Despite all these, the former and the current governments have signaled to Turkey many times that Armenia is ready to establish bilateral relations without any preconditions, while Turkish authorities always speak about preconditions, which aborts all kinds of processes.
Q. How many Christians are there in Armenia?
A. Historically Armenia is a predominantly a Christian and mono-ethnic country. Unofficially, the population does not surpass 2.5 Million people. Most of the population are considered to be the followers of Armenian Apostolic Church and most of them are nominal Christians. The followers of Evangelical- Pentecostal denominations are about 100,000.
Now there are 67 registered religious organizations, 45 of them are Evangelical- Pentecostal churches. It must be stated that there are also dozens of communities that are not registered, which practice religion and belief.
Q. Have evangelical Christians participated in the protest movement? How do Christians you know see the future of the country?
A. It should be noted that the civil disobedience and resistance movement was of a peaceful nature, it was declared as a struggle of open hands where even the biblical principles were heard: if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. There was no aggression, there were no calls for violent overthrow of the power. It was actually in the atmosphere of love and solidarity, and most of the evangelical Christians I know joined the peaceful disobedience and it's natural because Evangelical Christians have high civil consciousness and are active in their civil position. Of course, the atmosphere of love and solidarity contributed greatly to their participation.
My Christian friends look at the future of Armenia to be bright, full of hope and blessed. For dozens of years, Christians prayed day and night for Armenia, and it can be said that these developments were very similar to the things happening in the Old Testament Exodus when the people cried out to God, and God freed them from slavery. Now it is no less important and responsible stage. If we want to build the Promised Land of our dreams, we must also be ready to go on the path of personal internal reform and honest work.
Q. Is there real religious freedom in the country for evangelical Christians?
A. We cannot say that freedom of conscience and belief is not respected in Armenia, but there are problems that require urgent settlement. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is guaranteed by the Constitution, but there are significant drawbacks in the field of current legislation. In the last 10 years there have been made four unsuccessful attempts to amend the law on religious organizations and the main problem is that the basis of these bills was the concept of limitations instead of the proper regulation.
In addition to the legislative issues, it is also alarming that religious discrimination, including towards the Evangelical-Pentecostal Christians, is still widely spread. Religious discrimination is noticeable in the field of education, public administration, law enforcement agencies, and employment. We hope that the new government will be more principled in this area, and in Armenia everyone will be able to fully enjoy freedom of conscience and religion without being a subject of religious discrimination.
Q. How can other Christians in the world pray for Armenia?
A. This period is very important for Armenia. It is not an easy thing to start building the things that are destroyed or built in the wrong way. Now the Armenian people are to build the walls like Nehemiah did in Jerusalem. Christians in Armenia pray so that nothing could hinder the process and for the new authorities to rule with justice, law and with fear of God. So I would like to ask Christians all over the world to pray with the verse from Proverbs 8.15: “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice.”