Liliya Chobanian and Sossi Postajian attended the same services at Glendale’s St. Mary’s Church for years, but they didn’t know each other.
As they sip tea in an Armenian-owned Pasadena restaurant, they chat about the fact that they have much more in common than their faith: They both followed the teachings of Father Barthev Gulumian, a young and charismatic priest who was known for his earnestness.
“When you are hungry, what do you do?" asked Postajian, in an effort to explain the feeling people got from his sermons. "You eat, because you need to satisfy your flesh, right? The soul is the same way. You need to go to a church that satisfies your soul, spiritually.”
But when Gulumian was removed from his post, she said, the church no longer fed her soul.
Here is what happened: Gulumian was in the U.S. on an R-1 visa, given to religious workers and arranged for by the Western Prelacy, the Armenian Apostolic Church based in Lebanon. After five years, that visa expired, which Gulumian only discovered when he was detained at LAX last September by immigration authorities after returning from Lebanon.
Within a couple of months, the church said it simply could not get Gulumian’s visa renewed, and he was reassigned far away, to Venezuela—where there is a small population of about 2,000 Armenians.
The transfer did not sit well with Postajian and other parishioners, so about 400 of them sent a letter to the highest leader in the church, looking for answers.
“He did not send letters, he did not come out and address the issue publicly. Nothing, zero, nada,” said Postajian.
Liliya Chobanian echoed the same frustration with the church leadership. Why, she wondered, didn't the Western Prelacy do more to keep a priest who had successfully appealed to younger, urban Armenian-Americans?
“My children being the second generation of Armenians in America, they are going to have less of an Armenian identity than I do right now," said Chobanian. "You know, you go to college, you are of mixed (descent), you even consider marrying outside of your culture, because that turns into a normal lifestyle. But if the church is not there, then we would never keep our identity.”
Last month, in a bold move, a group of mostly young parishioners led in large part by Chobanian and Postajian came out on a rainy Sunday to protest outside St. Mary’s. It was a rare public display of discontent in this tradition-bound community.
“He is an innocent victim of politics,” said Vosgan Mekhitarian, a scholar of Armenian culture and the son of a 1915 genocide survivor.
Mekhitarian is also a former priest. As the founding member of St. Mary’s Church, Mekhitarian enjoyed popularity in the growing immigrant Armenian community of the 70s. But at some point, he believes the Western Prelacy found him to be a threat. In a way, says Mekhitarian, the same thing happened with Father Barthev Gulumian.
“They do not want any priest to be popular enough in the community. I don’t understand this, really," said Mekitarian. "This is the right guy, an educated priest. He was successful in bringing youth together. Now, if Father Barthev is doing what the church is recommending, and he’s successful – why kick him out?”
Coincidentally, as Mekhitarian speaks, he gets a call from another local priest whose standing is under scrutiny by church officials.
Numerous attempts were made to speak to Western Prelacy Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian or other Armenian church leadership about these cases, to no avail.
But in a statement issued last month, the church said it was compelled to comply with U.S. laws, which, in Father Gulumian’s case, mandated that he leave the U.S. The statement added that his return “will be processed in compliance with U.S. immigration laws and policies.”
In the meantime, Liliya Chobanian and Sossi Postajian, alongside hundreds of other young Armenians, are taking to social media to say they are losing faith in their church. They are vowing to continue to step up their protests against church leadership.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Archbishop Hovnan Derderian is affiliated with the Armenian Apostolic Church's Western Prelacy. The story should have identified that church official as Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian. We apologize for the error.