Jam News: Ethnic minorities in Armenia rarely speak out about their problems

Mon 06 August 2018 15:55 GMT | 19:55 Local Time

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News.Az reprints from Jam News an article headlined "Ethnic minorities in Armenia rarely speak out about their problems".

The Yazidis object to their children being forced to say the Lord’s Prayer at school, while the Jews find it hard to observe the Sabbath.

Sharfadi: the religion that is passed down through word of mouth

Hamlet Smoyan is a native of Armenia, an ethnic Yazidi and a follower of the Sharfadin religion. He lives in the Araks village near Yerevan. There are 450 families in the village, of which 10 are Yazidi households.

Hamlet has never given deep thought to his ethnicity. He is a Yazidi and that’s it: a progressive-minded, well-educated, traditional Yazidi. However, he started thinking about his religious faith when he was a teen.

“When I was a child, I knew that we had our own religion, but many questions related to it remained unanswered for me. I was a schoolboy when the ‘History of the Armenian Church’ was first introduced in the curriculum in all public schools across Armenia.

“Initially, the classes were delivered by an expert from Echmiadzin [i.e. a clergyman. Echmiadzin accommodates the residence of the Catholicos of All Armenia and the main cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church – ed.]. He was later replaced with a history teacher. We were required to say a prayer before the class started. I knew very little about my religion at the time. My religious awareness was also very low. I would stand up and say the Lord’s Prayer together with other students,” says Hamlet.

There are 10 ethnic minority groups in Armenia, with the Yazidi community being the largest one. According to data from the 2011 census, there are 35 272 Yazidis in Armenia (unofficially their number ranges between 45 000 – 50 000).   

Ethnic minorities seldom report when they are discriminated against. However, there were a few occasions when they loudly expressed their discontent. For example, when some representatives of the Yazidi community complained about their children being forced to pray at school. The Yazidis suggested that the ‘History of the Armenian Church’ subject should be made optional so that the rights of non-Christian students were not violated.

In this regard, they appealed to government officials, including to Armen Ashotyan, when he served as the Minister of Education.  The latter responded as follows: “Those who oppose the ‘History of the Armenian Church’ subject are just western grant-hangers.”

“We also addressed the Catholicos with regard to this issue. He, in turn, said that the Echmiadzin [i.e. the Church] didn’t require students to pray because prayer wasn’t a part of the curriculum, and the teachers who underwent training in teaching this subject didn’t receive such instructions either. Then we came across the syllabus that clearly stated that a class should start with the Lord’s Prayer,” said Hamlet.

He believes that Yazidis are not subjected to discrimination at the state level. Although there is no discrimination, there isn’t any state assistance in the matter of preserving their religion either.

“The Yazidis are facing serious problems in terms of preserving and disseminating their religion. We have neither written sources nor any literature about Sharfadin. Information about it is communicated only verbally. It is passed down by representatives of the Yazidi castes of Sheikhs and Pirs.

“Since it is disseminated orally, the essence and principles of this faith undergo certain changes and are even distorted sometimes. This raises many questions among the Yazidis that remain unanswered, or people find answers in other faiths or teachings,” says Hamlet.

The Yazidi faiths of Sharfadin or Sharfadinism are based on the idea of monotheism. Yazidis worship one God whom they call Hoade. They kept their faith secret for a long time, not sharing any information about it with people of different creeds.

There are differences in the Yazidi community on the issue of preserving their national identity and faith. Representatives of the older generation believe that everything is fine and prefer to remain silent and not pay attention to problems. Hamlet hopes that people like him will manage to change the situation. He believes that the progressive-minded and educated youth will be able to integrate into the Armenian society without losing their national and religious self-identity.

“My brother is in the army now, where it is also customary to pray before meals. During the prayer, my brother stands up, like others do, though he doesn’t pray or cross himself. The reason is that a well-raised person should respect not only his own faith or religious views but also those of other people,” said Hamlet.

Judaism: Religious challenges facing the secular community

According to official data, the Jewish community of Armenia is comprised of only 127 members, while unofficially there are nearly 1 000.

"We spare no efforts to preserve our culture and national values, but there are still certain religious problems. A Jew should observe the Sabbath. How many people in Armenia can afford to stay at home on Saturday doing nothing? Almost all institutions in Armenia operate on Saturdays, including the Jews working for them.

“Our children serve in the army. Can they say they aren’t going to comply with the military orders or serve on Saturdays? Naturally, they can’t. Many educational institutions also work on Saturdays. What should we do? Should a Jewish child be deprived of the education? Sometimes it seems to me that our rabbi is the only one who observes Sabbath in Armenia,” the leader of the Jewish community Rimma Varzhapetyan says.

The Jews of Armenia have faced a certain manifestation of religious discrimination this year. There are a cross and a church portrayed on one of the new bills (the 500 dram bill) approved by the Armenian Central Bank that will be put into circulation this year. It will be a sin for the Jews to use this money:

“It’s the national currency, the money that everybody uses. Money is a dirty thing because it passes through thousands of hands. I believe that portraying a cross on the bill is disrespectful towards it [the cross -ed.]. You never know who will be holding a picture of the cross in their hands, will it be a decent or indecent person, an honest or a corrupt man. It may also fall into the hands of people whose religion prohibits them from holding or wearing a cross. It’s unacceptable for the Jews to take this money,” says Rimma Varzhapetyan.

The cross is regarded by Jews as the main symbol of other people’s religion which they are prohibited to wear in any form. It’s also a symbol of death and suffering for them. For over 1 500 years people have blamed the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, thereby justifying the anti-Semitic policies. It was only in 1965 that the Roman Catholic Church declared that the sin of Christ’s crucifixion shouldn’t apply to any Jews nor their descendants.

The Jewish community is unlikely to make any loud statements about the new national currency. They think they will just avoid using 500 dram bills. Nevertheless, Varzhapetyan regrets that the new bill was designed with a disregard for the rights of Jews.

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