The man who would be Israeli
Tobmas Glastian came to Israel to become a priest. But once he came out as gay and left the church, the Interior Ministry refused to grant him a visa to stay here.
By Ilan Lior
Tobmas Glastian wants to be an Israeli. "Everyone calls me Tomas," he says, accepting the mispronunciation with understanding. He has lived here for almost half his life, all his friends are Israeli, and he speaks Hebrew almost at the same level as a native speaker. The truth is that he already feels Israeli in every way - and only the official document is missing.
Glastian, 29, was born in Armenia. He arrived in Israel at the age of 16 to study at the seminar of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem, with the intention of becoming a priest. He studied there for three years until one day he decided to escape. He had understood he was a homosexual and wanted to come out of the closet.
Glastian had not told anyone at the seminar about his sexual preference. He knew the church would consider it a terrible sin and would not accept him into its fold. At first, he informed only his parents in Armenia, but their response left him frightened and desperate.
"My parents no longer wanted me. They said they would rather I die than go back home. That shut the door for me; I no longer have a family," he says.
Thus, Glastian was left completely alone at the age of 19. He hastened to leave Jerusalem in favor of Tel Aviv. He was scared to go back to conservative Armenia and, in fact, he admits, he had no reason to go there. Three years later, a long while after his visa to Israel had expired, he was unable to find work and decided to turn to the United Nations and ask for political asylum in Israel. As part of a routine process, he was granted the temporary status of an asylum seeker that has to be renewed every six months.
"They don't even allow me to request permanent residency status," he says, adding that every time he raises the subject, he is told he has to undergo a comprehensive interview once more to get refugee status and only then will he be able to request permanent residency in Israel.
"I don't have a problem with undergoing an interview again," he says. "They have been telling me for two and a half years already that I must go for the interview but they don't make an appointment for me. Every time I ask them, they say: 'Okay, we'll make an appointment and tell you to come,' but nothing moves."
Meanwhile, Glastian heads off to the Interior Ministry's office every six months. "I wait there for three hours; they check here, they investigate there; and in the end, they tell them on the telephone: 'Come on! Sign already.' They treat me there in a humiliating fashion; it's very offensive. Today, without bragging, I consider myself more Israeli than an Israeli. There is not a drop of Armenia in me any longer."
A few months ago, Glastian turned to Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz and requested his help. Horowitz sent him to attorney Dr Yuval Livnat from Tel Aviv University's Human Rights Clinic who deals with the rights of refugees, in the hope he would help to get matters solved. Judging by past experience, Livnat is not optimistic - on the contrary.
No homosexual has so far been recognized as a refugee in Israel. According to the UN's Refugee Charter, a refugee is a person who is faced with a real threat of persecution in his homeland on the background of race, religion, nationality, political affiliation or belonging to a certain social group.
"All the countries in the western world have determined that homosexuals and lesbians belonging to a certain social group, and therefore they can be considered refugees," says Livnat. "In the State of Israel, at the present moment, this is not yet so."
Even if Glastian manages to create a precedent and becomes the first homosexual who is recognized as a refugee in Israel, he will still be far from having the permanent-resident status he so desires. Israel has never granted permanent residency to a refugee. "To my great regret, in Israel, even if you are recognized as a refugee, you remain a temporary resident forever," Livnat explains. "As of today, that is the unfortunate lot of all the refugees in Israel."
Despite the difficulties, Glastian speaks admiringly of Israel. He feels this is his country. "I love this country. In my first interview at the UN, they asked me if I would prefer to go to another country and I didn't want to under any circumstances. But from time to time, I have the feeling that maybe I made a mistake and that perhaps it would have been better to go somewhere else where they absorb you immediately and they give you the opportunity to advance in life and not to remain stuck," he says.
"Today, with all my love for Israel, I feel like I am stuck and this hurts me a great deal."
According to the Interior Ministry: "Mr Tobmas Glastian entered Israel in 1998 on a tourist visa. After a number of years, he registered with the UN and submitted a request for political asylum, and it was decided to give him a temporary work permit until a decision was made in his case. His visa is a temporary one that is given for as long as the request is under consideration and it has to be renewed every few months. The visa makes it possible to work in Israel. His request is being examined by the population and migration authority."