We were deeply disappointed by the lack of determination of the Armenian authorities. European Forum of LGBT Cristian Groups

LGBTnews interlocutors are the representatives of the European Forum of LGBT Cristian Groups, who recently visited Armenia after the planned LGBT Christian Forum had been cancelled in Armenia.

Over different years, you have conducted LGBT Christians Forums in various countries for 10 times. What is the forum about? What kind of problems does it solve? Is it an organization or an initiative?

Misha Chernyak, the organizer of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups – We have already organized the forum in five countries: Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, and Estonia, simply in some countries – more than once. This year’s forum would be the 11th one. It all began in 2004, then there was a pause, and then, from 2009 to now, the forum has been held every year.

The word “forum” means two things in our context: first, the European Forum as an organization and then, the forum as an event.

The Co-chair of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups Wille Elhorst I am the co-chair of the Forum of LGBT Christian Groups in Europe. It is a NGO, we operate since 1982, during the first decades, it was basically a platform for LGBT Christians to meet each other. Since 2012, we are an organization that receives funding. Since 2012, we have had the opportunity to address the problems in Eastern and Central Europe, because Eastern and Central European LGBT Christians and their groups joined us. The meaning of our forum is propaganda, empowerment, and consolidation of people enabling them to share their experiences, as well as to create a community of LGBT Christians, where they can feel accepted and so to speak feel at home.

Misha Chernyak As a conference the forum has been organized by ordinary people, not by organization: in 2004 it was organized by LGBT people in Russia, Ukraine, there were also guests from other countries, the first forum was held in St. Petersburg, then in Moscow, Kyiv and other places, last year it was held in Bucharest.

The European Forum, as an organization, has been one of the donors of the event over many years, and from last year, we formally act jointly, that is, the organization acts as the forum organizer, as the face of the forum.

The forum has always been a small event with about 45-90 participants depending on the venue, geographically from Murmansk to Tashkent, Vladivostok to Poland. Among the participants have been Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Moldova, Romania, Armenia for several times, sometimes Georgia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and some other countries, where there are LGBT Christians. As you can see, these are countries that are not associated with LGBT Christians instantly, because as a movement it is more present in the West, in the East, these people are often lonely, they do not have groups, they are in isolation, their churches do not welcome them.

The LGBT community sometimes supports them; sometimes even the LGBT community does not understand how you can be a LGBT and a person of faith simultaneously. So these people live in isolation and have always used this forum to share their joys and sorrows, to pray together, to think of united initiatives and projects, it’s a place to empower people.

-Is this year’s forum planned to be organised in another country or it was simply cancelled? 

Misha Chernyak The point is that the European Forum does not have much funding, and we, as a NGO, depend on grants, the money was for one attempt, we spent a lot of money on tickets and we are not able to organize it again this year.

So it moves up to the autumn of the next year, and to where – we still do not know. We would like to try to bring the forum once again to Armenia, but in the current political situation, we cannot predict what will happen in Armenia within a year.

Wille Elhorst We would like to do it very much, because we saw what caused the forum here: on the one hand, a lot of hatred, on the other hand, it has triggered many conversations on LGBT people and on faith. And we can say it is a good result, which can be one of the reasons for our return to Armenia.

-What was the logic to choose Armenia as the venue for this year’s forum?

Misha Chernyak Every year, an invitation from the locals should be sent. Last year, a representative of the ”New Generation” humanitarian NGO attended the conference in Bucharest and offered an invitation. We just need to know that locals are able to organize the event and ensure its safety. None of us – nor the representative of the ”New Generation” humanitarian NGO, nor we, could predict such developments.

Since our forum is a small event, we have never been involved in local political events. We are only interested in the human rights situation, we want our safety to be ensured, whenever we go somewhere, we want our rights to be protected, and if it is a political problem for the country, then it is a problem, however we come with no intention to interfere in the political agenda of the country.

In other words, haven’t you predicted that such a noise can rise?

Wille Elhorst We had decided to come here before the revolution, and, of course, the political situation has changed drastically, but we could not predict the change to be so drastic that the forum could cause such reactions. There is also, of course, the fact that we have been used in this political context. For us, as an organization, this is something new; we have never had to cancel the conference before.

Misha Chernyak We have never been politically involved in some issues. Of course, we work to make a better world for LGBT people and for all those subjected to discrimination, it is a political stance, but it’s not a political statement, we are interested in the rights. We were impressed by the level of influence the forum has: none of our events has ever been discussed in any national parliament; it was a surprise both for us, and for all of our partners. We think that an important role played the fact that Armenia is closely connected with the Christian heritage, at least in the national context, maybe not so much in practice, maybe it is not more than of declarative level, but in the public context, Christianity and LGBT in one expression have shocked Armenia. And that is why it was easily viewed as a controversial issue and easily became a weapon for political games.

There are various Christian denominations in the world, that have essentially different approaches to the LGBT rights issue, what do you mean by saying “Christian groups”?

Wille Elhorst We are an ecumenical organization: we allow any type of Christian to be a member of our organization, and when we talk about Christian groups, they are different types of groups, there are no fixed identities. At the European Forum there are no laws to become a member of Christian groups, all groups are welcomed. So, we are Christians in nature, we are not associated with any church and we don’t like to be because we want to be an independent organization.

– How would you comment on the response of the Armenian authorities and law enforcement bodies to your forum?

Misha Chernyak A lot of nonsense has been said about us, there have been accusations that are completely absurd, such as when one said that we will reduce the birth rate in Armenia, we are physically unable to do it, and this is just an exaggeration. Or, as if we undermine our national security and so on. That is, there are things that cannot be interpreted as they are absurd. We are more disturbed by the comments voiced by the authorities.

Political statements that are extremist in their nature, they are simply crimes, hate crimes, which should be investigated, and we expect a transparent and honest investigation from the Armenian authorities. I personally can say that the investigation of the crimes should not be linked to the election results, it should happen, whoever is in power: justice is justice. That’s the first level. The second level, we were deeply disappointed by the lack of determination of the Armenian authorities because when you hear that Armenia has had a revolution of love and solidarity, when you hear about democratic processes that has began here, when you hear that the authoritarian regime lasting for nearly twenty years has been overthrown, you are expecting certain standards of democracy. Unfortunately, in our opinion, and this view is shared both by local and international organizations, the Armenian authorities have not meet these expectations, did not keep these standards, it turned out that they were not ready for what they declare, and this is coming out against them because failing to protect us as they should have done, they gave a victory to their opponents – the opposition.

So they showed the opposition that they could win by scaring, frightening and threatening, and this is something that the current authorities should avoid at all costs.

-What are you planning to do to raise this issue on the international platforms?

Wille Elhorst When we decided to cancel the conference, we immediately spread a press release, we are a member of the Council of Europe since July 2016. We used our international connections not only the Council of Europe, but also for example, the Dutch Embassy in Georgia, as we are an organization established in the Netherlands, also the European Union, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and Associations, ILGA-Europe, Amnesty International. All human rights institutions are aware of and follow developments closely.

Misha Chernyak We also believe that the government should be more serious, all the organizations that we mentioned have already put pressure on the government, and they will continue because if you say you are democratic, you should be such.

Wille Elhorst Of course, we hope the pressures will lead to dialogue. One of such opportunities for Armenia will be at the session of Council of Europe in April, because the Chairperson of International NGO Conference has directly addressed the temporary representative of the Council of Europe in Armenia to raise this issue. However our true hope is that there will be a dialogue of hearts in the society, and now we can see that many groups are discussing the issue of what it means to be a LGBT and a Christian, and we are hopeful that even cancellation of our forum will have its contribution in the dialogue of hearts.