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Armenia’s small Baha’i community has lived in the country for over a century; now they are finding their place in the new post-revolutionary order.
‘I still keep silent about my religion. I know it’s wrong, but I’m still afraid. My parents are strict in this regard, they see and accept nothing but the Armenian Apostolic Church.’
Astghik (not her real name), 28, is a follower of the Baha’i faith; one of around 500 in Armenia.
‘When discussing any religion in my surroundings, my friends call everyone “sectarian”, they do not accept them, but it’s a result of ignorance’, Astghik tells OC Media.
Astghik says that her path to becoming a follower of the Baha’i faith began when she was young.
‘While searching for my own sense of self, I began studying the teachings of different religious minorities’, Astghik says. ‘From childhood, I felt that what I was forced to profess was not mine.’
‘It’s been less than a year since I discovered the teachings of the Baha’i for myself.’
Astghik does not like to talk about her faith. She says it is very personal; though, she is also concerned that she will be misunderstood by the people around her.
She recalls a recent incident in which a co-worker was fired because, she says, she belonged to a religious minority.
‘She was forced to leave because she was “different” ’, Astghik says. ‘I’m afraid. I am also “different” in their eyes.’
She has still not told her friends and relatives about her faith. ‘I’m sure I will still find the strength to be fully open to everyone.’
Baha’i in Armenia, a history
Originating in 19th century Persia, the Baha’i faith is younger than most major religions. The faith is monotheistic and postulates that there is truth and legitimacy in all major world religions and their prophets and sacred figures — and envisions a future with an equal and united humanity.
Followers of the faith have also endured a great deal of historic persecution, especially in the Islamic world — Iran, in particular— where the faith is not considered a separate and legitimate religion, but rather as apostasy from Islam.
The Baha’i community in Armenia emerged when Armenia was still in the Russian Empire. In 1889, a Russian court recognised the Baha'i faith as an independent religion. The administrative body of the community was dissolved in 1938 at the request of the Soviet government and was re-established after the collapse of the USSR.
‘The last time we calculated the number of Baha’i followers in Armenia was in 2004. At that time, we were 500 people’, Irshat Madyarov, a 42-year-old Baha’i follower tells OC Media. ‘Since 2004, we have not conducted a census. Our religion says there is no need to set boundaries, to distinguish people.’
Madyarov teaches English at the American University of Armenia. He moved from Russia to Armenia with his family 10 years ago.
‘I have always thought about spiritual life’, he says. ‘Twenty-five years ago I began studying religions: the Quran, the Bible. I used to attend various religious gatherings.’
‘I found myself in the Baha’i faith because it did not limit me’.
Madyarov is a member of the national spiritual assembly of the Baha’i community of Armenia. Each year in April, the community elects nine representatives via a secret ballot, who deal with community issues during the year as well as organise events and keep in touch with the media and the government.
‘The same flowers in different gardens’
‘We are not engaged in proselytising. [In the Baha’i faith] it is forbidden’, says 32-year-old Gayane Hunanyan, another member of the community's national spiritual assembly.
She has been a member of the Baha’i community for 10 years.
‘When I first got acquainted with the ideas of the religion and started visiting the community, my parents became deeply concerned. They thought, somehow, that I was going to hurt myself’, Hunanyan tells OC Media.
But when her brother also decided to take up the Baha’i faith, Hunanyan’s parents’ attitude changed.
‘From that moment, my parents were more tranquil’, she says.
Hununyan also found acceptance among her colleagues.
‘Everyone knows about my faith at my workplace. I have no problems there’, Hunanyan says. ‘Though a discriminatory attitude towards [non-majority] religions is very prevalent in Armenia.’
According to the 2011 census, 92.7% of the Armenian population are followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are no official statistics on the Baha’i community.
Hikoyat and Edward Manasyan met in Uzbekistan, where Hikoyat was born. They met while Edward, who is from Nagorno-Karabakh, was visiting his parents, who lived in Uzbekistan at the time.
‘I was 20 years old when I met Hikoyat. Both of us were followers of the Baha’i faith’, Edward tells OC Media.
Now 45, Edward first learned of Baha’i teachings while living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
‘I searched and found my faith based on religion and [a scientific approach]’, Edward says. ‘And thanks to my faith, I found my second half, Hikoyat.’
While Edward, a lawyer and a member of the Armenian Chamber of Advocates, says he has never faced problems because of his faith, Hikayat’s life has been more difficult.
‘My parents are Muslims’, Hikayat tells OC Media. ‘After the collapse of the USSR, I was in a religious confusion. But I found spiritual calmness when I started studying the Baha’i faith. When my parents learned about my faith, they were shocked.’
‘At first they didn’t accept me. The problem was solved with time’, Hikoyat, now 42, says. She currently works as a manager in a private firm in Yerevan.
‘Even now, when people learn about my faith, they call me a Muslim. Many are unaware of our beliefs, many others confuse us with Muslims.’
Their daughter, 18-year-old Mariam, who studies at the American University of Armenia, is also a follower of the Baha’i faith.
‘It’s not because its the faith of my parents that I followed the Baha'i faith’, she tells OC Media. ‘According to the Baha’i, when a person is already 15 years old, they can decide what religion they belong to. When I was 15, I already knew exactly who I was and what I needed’.
Mariam’s 24-year-old brother is also a Baha’i follower. Her younger brother, only 12, still has time to choose his religious path.
‘In my environment, many do not even have an idea of what Baha’i is. I don’t even speak about it; there is no need’, Mariam says, before adding that there was also no need to count the number of followers.
‘We are all the same, the same flowers in different gardens’, she says.
Stepan Danielyan, a religious affairs expert and chair of the Collaboration for Democracy Centre, a Yerevan-based NGO, says that the attitude towards religious minorities has changed over the last 10 years and especially since the revolution.
‘Society has become more educated, informed, and tolerant. While a year ago the media and television, and sometimes schools, sowed intolerance towards religious minorities in society, thanks to the efforts of the new government, there is no such problem today’, he told OC Media.
‘Over the past year the media has been keeping themselves quite neutral’, he concluded.
All place names and terminology used in this article are the words of the author alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.