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While Europe Braces for Massive Muslim Influx, Swedish City Hosts Middle Eastern Christians


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Syriac Orthodox Cathedral in Sodertalje, Sweden

John Burger - published on 09/08/15

Syrian, Iraqi, Coptic and Serbian families growing the Church in Sweden

The massive wave of migrants flooding into Europe from the Middle East and Africa is predominantly Muslim, presenting challenges on many levels for a continent that still has vestiges of a great Christian civilization.

But Christians are fleeing the same regions that these migrants are leaving, and in spite of pleas from bishops in the Middle East, many families feel they have little choice but to depart from their ancestral homelands.

“We know some 700,000 Syrian Christians are displaced,” said Michael LaCivita, spokesman for Catholic Near East Welfare Association. “And hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians. But how many escaping to Europe are Christian is unknown.”

As Pope Francis and Church and political leaders promise to accommodate more refugees, the number Christians looking to Europe might increase, according to  Father Andrzej Halemba, head of the Middle East Section of the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need.

“The discussions in Europe have also been noticed [in Syria]. Many wish to leave for this reason, and especially the Christians,” he said. “I have often been asked if I can help people to move to Germany, for example. But the aim of our work is to facilitate a future for the people in their own country.”

Father Halemba has visited the war-torn country several times this year. “My impression, after several visits since the beginning of this year, is one of increasing concern about the ever greater instability in Syria,” he said. “The military success of ‘Islamic State’ causes fear and anxiety especially among the Christians. The future of the city of Aleppo, where many Christians still live, is uncertain.”

One unlikely European destination already has years of experience in welcoming refugees. The small city of Södertälje, outside of Stockholm, Sweden, is home to the Sankt Ignatios Theological Academy, which has helped refugees from previous crises is Iraq, Syria and the Balkans. As a well-established college that has served a growing community of Christians from various traditions, Sankt Ignatios may be in a good position to welcome today’s Christian refugees.

Largely funded by the Swedish government, the Church-run academy is an “interesting example of how government tries to accommodate and integrate refugees from the Middle East by using theology,” said Father Cyril Hovrun, who teaches political ecclesiology there.

In short, study of the transcendent also helps one to transcend national, political, ethnic and confessional boundaries.

The Stockholm suburb is not where one might expect to find Middle Easterners. It’s a place with long nights in the winter and highs in the summer getting rarely about the 70s. Bjorn Borg grew up here. Scania makes trucks here.

But with a wave of refugees in the wake of the 1990s conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Södertälje now has a strong Serbian community. And, because of the war in Iraq, many Assyrian Christians have settled in the city.

In fact, a promotional brochure for Södertälje says the city has taken in more Iraqi refugees than the United States and Canada combined. Assyrians have five churches and two bishops here now, and the city boasts the largest Syriac cathedral in the world. From this location, two TV channels broadcast programming to Syriac, Chaldean and Assyrian Christians in the Middle East and the diaspora: Suroyo TV and Suryoy Sat.

While the Serbian residents are Eastern Orthodox, those from Syria and Iraq are largely Oriental Orthodox—members of Churches that have been separated from the Eastern Orthodox world since the 5th-century dispute over the nature of Christ. Adding to the latter community are Coptic immigrants from Egypt and Ethiopia.

But the experience of living and working side by side in a foreign country, particularly at a theological institute, bolsters an ecumenical spirit here. While Eastern and Oriental Orthodox cannot celebrate the Eucharist together, they can pray Vespers and other such liturgies together. Such celebrations alternate daily among the various rites—Coptic, Syriac and Byzantine.

The academic atmosphere also takes an edge off any tensions that exist across religious lines. Muslim immigrants and members of their families also live, work and study in the area. The academy is part of a network of community colleges that “embrace all kinds of people, all classes of society, including the lowest ones, which are the refugees,” said Father Hovrun, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest. “It’s a good example of how Muslim and Christian students can study together.”

“I recently had a conversation with a student of mine, a taxi driver,” Father Hovrun said. “He told me that through his studies he got rid of his prejudice against Muslims. People come from those countries with strong feelings of hostility…but through studies, the institution encourages people to think outside the box, and they change their attitude.”

Both the government and churches in general in Sweden have long been welcoming, Syrian refugees actually began coming in the 1970s, but “there was a huge influx at the beginning of the third millennium,” said Michael Hjälm, the dean of Sankt Ignatios and senior lecturer in Eastern Christian Studies. So many of today’s refugees who have family in Sweden will find it easier to get there than the masses of migrants trying to get to Germany and other parts of Europe, not knowing where they will end up.

Many come with a very strong Christian background from the Middle East,” Father Hovrun said. “This is good because Swedish society becomes more aware of these Eastern Christian traditions. It’s not just a guest in Swedish society but a natural part of the social fabric. And the Church becomes more aware of these traditions, more knowledgeable about them. This is also good from the perspective of ecumenical rapprochement. And the Catholic Church is very active in this as well, even though it’s a minority Church in Sweden.” 

Some of the refugees will return to their homelands, if and when the political situations there stabilize. There is still a strong desire to return among many of the expatriates, and one strong pull is to return to communities centered around ancient monasteries and other holy sites.

In the meantime, families have been established on Swedish soil, and the Swedish-born grow up fluent in ancestral languages as well as Swedish and English. Vocations to the priesthood are also coming to the new generations, and Sankt Ignatios has Syriac, Byzantine and Coptic seminaries. There is even a local Coptic bishop now who is Egyptian but Swedish-born.

Is Södertälje prepared for the new massive migration? It has received almost 400 migrants this year.

Said Hjälm: “It’s been a constant flow. We are prepared as much now as we were during the Iraq war.”

John Burgeris news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

Christians in the Middle EastRefugees
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