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Religion and Forced Displacement in the Republic of Armenia

Article by Jasmine Dum-Tragut

July 23, 2020

Religion and Forced Displacement in the Republic of Armenia


After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its newly gained independence in 1991, the Republic of Armenia (RA) underwent profound demographic changes. Since the late 1980s, the country has experienced waves of migration caused by the devastating earthquake of 1988 and the armed conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) region, which resulted in border blockades and harsh economic conditions. Since then, Armenia has been characterised by one of the highest migration rates worldwide, as more than one third of the population lives permanently outside the country. From 2008 to 2012, Armenia was one of the main countries of origin of asylum seekers and economic refugees entering the European Union (EU).[1] The emigration of an estimated one million Armenians since 1988 has been offset by the influx of ethnic Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan and NK, and, in the last five to six years, from Iraq, Iran and Syria. In addition, repatriated diaspora Armenians have started to return home. In addition, a relatively small proportion of incomers is formed by non-ethnic Armenians, such as refugees from Ukraine, the Far East and a number of African states.


Religion, ethnicity and population

As part of the Soviet Union, Armenia was the smallest (29,800 km2) but ethnically most homogenous republic. In the last Soviet census in 1989, Armenia, having already been affected by the 1988 earthquake, had a de jure population of 3,304,776 million, of whom two thirds were urban and one third rural. Ethnic Armenians represented the majority of the population (93.5 per cent), followed by Azerbaijanis, Kurds and Yezidis.


After independence, the first Armenian census in 2001 already reflected drastic demographic changes with a population of 3,213,011, composed of 97.9 per cent Armenians with Yezidis as the largest ethnic minority (1.2 per cent). The Azerbaijanis had left or been expelled from the country.[2] After 2001, even greater demographic homogenisation was caused by the emigration of Russian-speaking Armenians and ethnic minorities as a consequence of strict language policies, and a wave of repatriation on the part of incoming diaspora Armenians. The census of 2011 counted 3,018,854 inhabitants, of whom 98.1 per cent were ethnic Armenians, followed by 1.1 per cent Yezidis and 0.3 per cent Russians.[3] In both censuses, the answer to the optional question of ethnic affiliation was recorded according to the respondent’s self-identification.


Table 1: Population decrease in the Republic of Armenia, total numbers[4]


Armenia is also labelled the last Christian bulwark in this region. The oldest Christian state in the world looks, at least in terms of official figures and statistics, to have a predominantly Christian population, with more than 90 per cent belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church. In the census of 2011, the population was asked about its faith and religious affiliation for the first time after 70 years of Soviet atheist indoctrination. 95.97 per cent of the population described themselves as believers, with 96.55 per cent of these belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church, the national church of Armenia. The next largest religious groups with 1.01 per cent were the Evangelicals and with 0.87 per cent the followers of Shar-fadin (Yezidism). [5]


The question of religious affiliation was again based on self-identification with a religion or religious denomination, and cannot not be equated with official membership in the respective religious or denominational community or with active practicing of the given faith.


Table 2: Religious affiliation in the Republic of Armenia, Census 2011[6]


However, there is some doubt about the official population figures of Armenia. Due to population movements, mainly from Armenia (caused by both significant labour migration to Russia and Turkey and ongoing emigration), and to a much lesser extent also to Armenia (repatriation or naturalisation of diaspora Armenians), the number of people residing permanently in Armenia appears to be much smaller than the stated figures. The declining birth rate also contributes to the ongoing population decline.[7]


The figures reflecting population distribution in terms of ethnicity, mother tongue and religious affiliation should also be critically examined. Information provided by representatives and associations of the respective ethnic and religious groups differ significantly from the census data.


Religion-state relations

At various times in the history of Armenia, the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) clearly held the position of national leader, and was strongly committed to preserving national culture and values. In the 1980s, the AAC was also involved in the movement towards regaining independence for Armenia and for the liberation of NK. With the country having achieved independence, the leadership of the republic had to redefine the balance of power in the state, and to formulate internationally recognised legislation concerning religion and religious groups. The 1988 earthquake provided fertile grounds for various ‘foreign’ religious organisations, with some arriving bearing humanitarian aid, and some regarding post-Soviet Armenia as a suitable market place for Evangelisation. Thus, even before the adoption of the first post-Soviet constitution in 1995, the law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations (FCRO) was passed on June 17th 1991 and amended in 1997, 2001 and 2011.[8] This law, the RA Constitution of July 5th 1995, amended in 2005 and 2015, and the Law regarding the relationship between the Republic of Armenia and the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church (RAHAAC) of February 2nd 2007, form the most relevant legal documents regulating the religious affairs of the republic.[9] They also address the distribution of power between state and church, while also emphasising the role of AAC for the Armenian people:


  • The FCRO begins declaring the AAC as the “national Church of the Armenian people” and “an important bulwark for the edification of its spiritual life and national preservation“, but establishes in Article 6.17 the separation of church and state.[10]
  • Article 18 of the Armenian Constitution provides for the separation of church and state, but also defines the “exclusive historical mission” of the AAC.[11]
  • The RAHAAC 2007 recognises in Article 2 the special relationship between the AAC and the state and the AAC as national church, as “an important and indivisible part of the foundation of the national identity“.[12]


The new government following the ‘velvet revolution’ of 2018 declared on various occasions the strict separation between state and government and its will not to interfere in church matters regarding religions minorities. It suspended, however the process of adopting a new draft of the law on religious freedom.[13]


Religion and forced displacement

The Republic of Armenia is generally regarded as a traditional emigration country. The figures for the last 30 years indicate a continuing trend. This high level of emigration was initially a consequence of the 1988 earthquake, the armed conflict over NK in the 1990s, and economic factors ongoing since independence, and only to a limited extent due to discrimination or persecution based on political, religious or sexual orientation.


The displaced population in RA consists largely of ethnic Armenians, and is composed only of a relatively small proportion of non-Armenian refugees and asylum seekers. In the early 1990s, the young republic was already overwhelmed by the mass influx of 360,000 ethnic Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan as a consequence of the NK conflict between 1988 and 1992. Since 2004, Armenia has welcomed hundreds of ethnic Armenian refugees from Iraq, as well as small numbers of ‘alien’ asylum seekers and refugees from the Middle East and Asia. The conflict in the Ukraine has led to a noticeable wave of arrivals since 2014. Since 2012, however, the most significant influx has come from Syria. Some 20,000 people sought shelter in Armenia, mainly ethnic Armenians, and by 2018 about 15,000 of them remained in the country. Following a short escalation of the conflict in NK in April 2016, about 2000 people were displaced from the NK villages of Talish and Mataghis.


Table 3: Total number of asylum applications in the Republic of Armenia, 1999-2018[14]


The Armenian authorities have reacted to the growing issue of displaced persons (DPs) and refugees by implementing corresponding laws and international agreements. In addition, Armenia quickly adopted various regulations to facilitate the status of ethnic Armenian DPs. Nevertheless, the majority of displaced ethnic Armenians, who came mainly from NK, Iraq and Syria, chose the administratively simpler and socially more prestigious residence permit or citizenship. Thus, while more than 15,000 displaced Armenians from Syria had received Armenian citizenship by 2015, just a few of them actually registered officially as asylum seekers or have the status of refugee.[15] Nevertheless, the majority of ethnic Armenians with residence or citizenship status live in refugee-like conditions. Officially, there are 18,085 refugees and asylum seekers registered in Armenia, among them 14,718 from Syria, 1,354 from Azerbaijan, 1092 from Iraq and 573 from NK.[16]


Table 4: Citizenships of asylum seekers arriving in the Republic of Armenia, 2014-18[17]


The relevant legal framework is mainly provided in the Armenian Law on Refugees and Asylum and in the law ‘On the citizenship of the Republic of Armenia’ of 1995 and amended in 2011, laws providing legislation for refugees from Azerbaijan and for ‘foreigners’ in general.[18] The State Migration Service, the National Security Service, Border Guards Troops, the Passport and Visa Department, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the office of the president of the RA and others are the primary responsible governmental entities.


It is challenging to briefly summarise the role and position of the AAC on the DP issue. The AAC, which for centuries was the most important supporter of displaced Armenians in the diaspora, has significant difficulties in maintaining this function in the RA. Whereas until the early 2000s the precarious economic situation and the deficit of priests were cited as the main causes of inadequate humanitarian aid to DPs, in recent decades serious efforts by individual church NGOs and organisations have been repeatedly hampered due to ‘hunting for souls’ – proselytism – on the part of other churches. The AAC feels threatened in its role as national church by many religious groups, but above all by those who could win numerous ethnic Armenians for their religious communities, according to the AAC, mainly thanks to humanitarian aid campaigns and the active support of both internally displaced persons (IDPs) and DPs who crossed national borders. The mass influx of Syrian Armenians demonstrated that the AAC in Armenia is not prepared for far-reaching humanitarian programs, but still has to rely on both the financial help and the organisational experience of the AAC in the diaspora.


Due to the dearth of coverage of AAC-initiated efforts for DPs in the media and on social media, many of the AAC’s successful refugee projects were and are simply not perceived – either by governmental organisations or by the average Armenian citizen. For example, the efforts of the Armenia Inter-Church Charitable Round Table Foundation (ART), an ecumenical organisation collaborating closely with churches and NGOs with the aim of actively involving the church in social work, are almost unknown.[19] Furthermore, there are many other, smaller NGOs and private initiatives of AAC priests and members that are engaged in supporting displaced Armenians from Syria, but likewise suffer from a lack of public awareness.


Thus, in public opinion, the AAC is involved neither in supporting DPs, IDPs and returnees, nor does it maintain any cooperation with governmental institutions on refugee issues. Allegedly there is also a lack of clear statements by the AAC regarding DPs. The AAC also seems to barely cooperate with foreign, religious NGOs or organisations (e.g. CARITAS), but rather tries to compete with them. This may be due to the fact that in recent years the AAC has claimed to be the sole church of every ethnic Armenian, and that ‘apostates’ are often perceived as less truly Armenian. Thus, while the Armenian state, being bound by international treaties and laws, seeks to treat all DPs equally regardless of ethnic origin or religion, the behavior of the AAC tends to share widespread xenophobia with the population of the RA paired with nationalistic narrowmindedness.


Policy perspectives

Despite the variety of activities directed at migration and DPs in Armenia, migration policy and above all humanitarian aid are characterised by a lack of coherence, a dearth of accessible information and limited cooperation, particularly regarding interaction between the state and church, or church organisations.


The strict separation between church and state, strongly propagated by the post-revolutionary government of Nikol Pashinyan, should better be limited to political issues in foreign and domestic policy, national security and decisions in education and science, but should not refer to issues of universal human rights, tolerance and humanitarian support for ALL persons living in Armenia.[20]  Better information exchange as well as targeted, joint programmes for refugee and DP aid must be ensured.


In addition to fighting poverty and preventing further large-scale emigration, the support of DPs in Armenia should also be an important issue and priority for the AAC. This help must also reach all DPs, regardless of their origin, religion, language or cultural values. The Church should not fight a battle against proselytism at the expense of the needy; rather clerics must make every effort to support those in need of help and offer them an open ear. This would without doubt also strengthen the position of the AAC in Armenian society, showing that Christian humanitarian action is not limited to one’s own people, but also to strangers and followers of other religions.


Thus, the demand for better coherence, information flow and joint programmes also applies to the AAC and other religious organisations. The AAC should reconsider its opinion about relations with those ‘other’ churches and religious communities in the country, particularly with regard to those which have also committed themselves to helping refugees and DPs in Armenia. The AAC, which has not established comparable humanitarian programmes in its history and pastoral activities, can only profit and learn from the long humanitarian experience of these ‘others’. Though the Armenian saying “Armenians rescue Armenians first and foremost” was very true of Armenian history in the 20th century, it should not prove so not in the history of 21st century Armenia, which is an increasingly multicultural, multi-religious and highly diverse society, in which mutual respect and tolerance are the most important attributes.


Jasmine Dum-Tragut, Armenologist, is head of the Center for the Study of the Christian East and the Department for Armenian Studies, senior scientist at the Department of Biblical Study and Ecclesiastical History, and docent at the Department of Linguistics at the University of Salzburg, Austria. Her latest publications include Far from the Fatherland, in the Fatherland. Fates of Armenian Soldiers in WWI. Exhibition Catalog, AGMI, Tigran Mets, Yerevan 2019; (with D. Winkler) Monastic Life in the Armenian Church, Peter Lang, 2018; and (with U. Bläsing, T.M. van Lint) (eds). A Commemoration Volume for Jos J.S. Weitenberg, Hebrew University Armenian Studies, 15, Peeters Publishers 2019.


Cover photo: ‘Syrian Armenian refugee child praying in Etchmiadzin Cathedral, April 2015’. Copyright: Asadour Guzelian. Printed with author’s permission.


[1] Regional Migration Report: South Caucasus 2013, 121pp. ‘European Asylum: 90% of Armenia’s Citizens Filing Requests Have Been Rejected’ published in the Armenian online newspaper HETQ, February 2017, ‘The number of asylum applicants from Armenia to the EU is declining”, published in Newsworthy, July 2018,

[2] ‘Results of Armenian Census 2001’ available at  (population in general) and  (Ethnic composition of population).

[3] ‘Results of the Armenian Census 2011’ available at and (population in general), (Ethnic composition of population).

[4] For figures of 2001 Census and 2011 Census see footnotes 2) and 3). For figures of all-Soviet census see For 2019 estimate, with live numbers, see

[5] ‘Results of the census of 2011. Religious belief and affiliation’

[6] Ibid.

[7] After a short-term increase in 2013-2014, the crude birth rate has been dropping annually over the last five years, down to 12.3 births per 1,000 capita of population in 2018. For more information see The de jure population in 2018 was estimated at 2,927,700 inhabitants according to the demographic yearbook of the Armenian Statistical Bureau, The Demographic Yearbook of Armenia, 2018,

[8] Law for Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations, full text available at

[9] Constitution of the Republic of Armenia, adopted on December 6th 2015, full text available at; Law regarding the relationship between the Republic of Armenia and the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church, 2007, full text available at:

[10] ‘Being cognizant of the Armenian Apostolic Church as the national Church of the Armenian people and as an important bulwark for the edification of its spiritual life and national preservation’, available at

[11] Article 18 of the Armenian Constitution states that ‘The Armenian Apostolic Holy Church. 1. The Republic of Armenia shall recognise the exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church, as a national church, in the spiritual life of the Armenian people, in the development of their national culture and preservation of their national identity. 2. The relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church may be regulated by law’. The wording of the first version of 1991 ‘unique mission’ was changed in the amendment as response to the criticism of the Council of Europe.

[12] ‘Article 2 – Holy Armenian Apostolic Church, 1. The Republic of Armenia recognizes the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church as the national church, with the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin as its headquarters and its hierarchal sees of the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia and the Armenian Patriarchates of Holy Jerusalem and Constantinople; and the exceptional mission of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church in the spiritual life of the Armenian people, their national cultural development and preservation of their national identity. […]  Article IV – Legislation Regulating the Relationship between the Republic of Armenia and the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church. The regulating principles of the relationship between the Republic of Armenia and the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church are delineated by the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia; its general relationship as delineated by the RA law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” and other laws and international agreements; and its special relationship – as a relationship between the state and national church recognized by the state – as delineated by this law’.

[13] This process was also stimulated by a joint paper by the Venice Commission and the OSCE. See: ‘Venice Commission Opinion No. 909/2017, OSCE/ODIHR Opinion No. FORB ARM/319/2018: Joint Opinion on the Draft Law Amending the Law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Organizations. Adopted by the Venice Commission at its 114th Plenary Session (Venice, March 16th-17th 2018)’ available at

[14] Official figures published by the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Development of the Republic of Armenia, Migration Service. (figures 1999-2009); (figures 2010-2013); and (figures 2013-2019).

[15] ‘15,465 displaced Armenians from Syria were granted Armenian citizenship between 2012 and June 2015’, in Economic integration of Syrian Armenians in Armenia, 2017, 17.

[16] ‘UNHCR Fact Sheet Armenia’, September 2019, available at

[17] Official figures published by the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Development of the Republic of Armenia, Migration Service. (figures 1999-2009); (figures 2010-2013); and (figures 2013-2019).

[18] See ‘Law on refugees and asylum’ available at; See ‘Law on citizenship in Republic of Armenia’ available at; ‘On legal and socio-economic guarantees of the refugees from the Republic of Azerbaijan from 1988-1992 who acquired the citizenship of the Republic of Armenia’, adopted on December 6th 2000. ‘On allocating the apartments built for the refugees displaced from the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1988-1992 to the refugees with ownership right’, adopted November 20th 2002. For a more detailed and complete overview of all Armenian regulations and legislation regarding refugees and asylum please see the website of the Armenian State Migration Service at; Armenian law ‘On Foreigners’, December 15th 2006, mainly for residence permits for foreigners working and studying in Armenia.

[19] The website of the Armenia Inter-Church Charitable Round Table Foundation is available at

[20] Nikol Pashinyan assumed the office as the 16th Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia on May 8th 2018.

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