A high-ranking member of the clergy in Armenia’s Apostolic Church has stunned the world’s oldest established Christian community by joining the fight for marriage equality in the former Soviet republic.
Equality Armenia, or EqAr, recently announced that Father Vazken Movsesian has accepted a spot on the board of directors of the newly-formed nonprofit, whose mission is to legalize same-sex marriage in Armenia.
In an interview with a Los Angeles radio journalist, Father Movsesian compared the historic persecution of Armenians across the border in the majority-Muslim nation of Turkey, and the Armenian Genocide, to actions by those who reject the LGBTQ community.
“We’ve been persecuted because we were not accepted, because we were different,” Movsesian told KPFK radio. “As an Armenian Christian, how can I possibly close my eyes to what’s going on in the world? And it’s not just in Armenia, just everywhere, this intolerance.”
That intolerance is evident in Armenia, where a 2016 survey by Pink Armenia found 90 percent of the country’s population is hostile toward LGBTQ people, and support limiting their civil rights. Pink Armenia became the nation’s first grassroots LGBTQ organization when it was founded in 2007.
The mountainous South Caucasus region where Armenia is located is rife with horrifying acts of violence and homophobia, said Los Angeles-based LGBTQ-rights advocate Amen Abelyan. He founded EqAr in early November, and in a press release, called Movsesian’s support “very significant,” given that the Armenian Apostolic Church is Christianity’s oldest church. In 301 A.D., he said, Armenia adopted Christianity as state religion more than a decade before the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire that would spawn the Roman Catholic Church.
“Jesus said to love one another, there was no exception,” Movsesian told gay radio host Cary Harrison. “There was no clause to it.”
Movsesian told Harrison that when he served as a priest in San Francisco in the early 1990s, he heard the confession of a young Armenian man who sought his advice before coming out, fearing his family would reject him. “If this is who he is,” Movsesian recalled thinking, “why am I not there with him? This is his nature, mine is to accept, and that was my awakening.”
“We have this opportunity to extend our hand to one-another and make this world a better place,” he told Harrison.
Movsesian’s biography reveals that in his 32 years as a cleric, the Los Angeles native has worked to merge ancient traditions and practices of Armenian Orthodoxy with contemporary themes. He has worked around the world including in his ancestral homeland, where his parents survived the 1915 Genocide and escaped to America.
Movsesian also founded “In His Shoes,” a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting all those who suffer in the world. He says he created this effort as a response to the Genocide more than a century ago.
Abelyan is an immigrant from Armenia who arrived in the U.S. at age 19, and in addition to community organizing had a career in accounting and law enforcement. He was the Board President of Gay and Lesbian Armenian Society, or GALAS, prior to founding EqAr, which works to empower NGOs in Armenia. WeHo Times reported he is so passionate about his mission to achieve marriage equality in Armenia, that he is underwriting the non-profit organization until funds are raised through donations.
And the struggle of LGBTQ Armenians is not limited to their homeland. The latest report on hate crimes issued Nov. 16 by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Rights showed that for the first time in many years, the largest targeted group were gay men, lesbians and LGBT organizations, surpassing hate crimes against anti-African Americans. And given that Armenian-Americans were also singled-out for hate, LGBTQ Armenians are that much more at risk.
Their plight goes far beyond Southern California. The California Department of Justice released its annual report on hate crimes in July, showing an 11.2 percent spike across all marginalized groups — the second year in a row for double-digit increases, which political experts blamed on President Trump’s hate-filled messages and bullying tactics.
The focus on winning marriage equality back home can be achieved in concert with efforts here and in other nations where Armenians live, which Abelyan calls the Diaspora.
“I understand that Equality Armenia’s mission is a lofty goal,” he says in a press release heralding Movsesian’s decision to join EqAr’s board of directors. Already, some progress has been made, with Armenia’s Ministry of Justice declaring earlier this year that international marriage licenses, including for same-sex couples, are valid in Armenia.
“It is time for Armenia to extend the same rights to its own citizens,” Abelyan says.
On Dec. 2, EqAr held its first fundraiser, a night of comedy in Pasadena hosted by comics Mary Basmadjian and Movses Shakarian, who are also members of the nonprofit’s board. Organizers said 100 percent of the proceeds were to benefit Pink Armenia, which is headquartered in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan.
Abelyan’s organization holds a monthly mixer as well, with the next meet-up set for January 15th at The Black Cat on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.