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Religious Groups Protest Against Social Security Reform

By Ruzanna Khachatrian

Several hundred religiously motivated people took to the streets of Yerevan on Thursday to protest against the introduction of mandatory social security accounts for Armenian citizens, saying that it runs counter to the basic tenets of Christianity.

The protesters led by several non-governmental organizations and an extreme nationalist group said the government’s decision to issue all Armenians with special “social security cards” carrying lifetime numbers have a “Satanic” significance. The demonstration was timed to coincide with the July 1 entry into force of a law providing for their introduction.

The law passed by parliament last year is part of the government’s stated efforts to crack down on tax evasion and overhaul the country’s Soviet-era pension system. The cards will contain information about a person’s employment history and social security contributions. The Armenian Ministry of Social Security has already begun their distribution and is due to complete the process by January 1.

The authorities had to make largely symbolic amendments to the initial version of the legislation last year in response to strong objections from the quasi-official Armenian Apostolic Church. They agreed in particular to make sure that no social account carries the “diabolic” number 666 mentioned in the New Testament.

The church last week reaffirmed its acceptance of the reform and urged its ardent adherents to fall in line. However, some of them remain convinced that the very idea of attaching a particular number to a human being is “anti-Christian.” They urged on Thursday Catholicos Garegin II to back their cause. They also called for the repeal of a clause in a separate law that allows the Armenian authorities to make personal data on their citizens available to foreign governments under some circumstances.

One of the organizers of the protest, Khachik Stamboltsian, claimed that shortly before the rally police confiscated a ceremonial coffin laden with mock security cards which the protesters hoped to put on display. “One of our guys carrying the coffin was taken in an unknown direction,” he told RFE/RL.

Stamboltsian, who runs a religious charity not linked with the Armenian Church, also said that he received warning phone calls from several senior police officers the previous night. “They were asking me not to bring out the coffin on the grounds that the U.S. independence day is coming up, there are Americans in town and it will be shameful if they see it,” he said.

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