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Religion and Society

Welcome to Mesopotäljie, the Middle-East in Sweden

With whole communities of persecuted Christians fleeing north, a bit of Middle East has been transplanted in Sweden. There, amidst surprising opportunities and risks of “rejection”, something is happening: a reciprocal contagion and a greater realization, on the part of the refugees, not only of the value of their bimillenary traditions risking extinction but also of the openings for something new to be born. Particularly in a small town to the south of Stockholm where a third of the population is now made up of Eastern Christians.

A football ground: this could be the place to start telling the story of the Christians who have emigrated from the Middle East to Sweden. People from the Middle East aren’t that passionate about ice hockey; they prefer a football to a puck. There are two really “militant” fan-groups: the “white-and-red” group that supports “Assyriska” and the “yellow-and-red” group that backs “Syrianska”. These are the two most important teams of the 18 clubs founded by Christians who describe themselves as “Assyrians” or “Syrian Aramaeans” (and there is a whole world behind the preference for one name or the other). All the dynamism and the divisions that characterise the life of their communities are expressed both in the game and from the terraces. Displaced by the dramatic events in the Middle East, these communities began arriving in alternating waves from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon from the 1960s onwards and there has been an unprecedented upsurge after the proclamation of the neo-Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. They belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Chaldean Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Armenian Church, the Maronite Church and the Coptic Church… They speak Turkish and Arabic and many of them also speak neo-Aramaic, which derives directly from the language Jesus used – as they proudly make clear. And while you listen and watch them in action, you wonder why. Why Sweden, of all places? Why, coming as they do from those lands of light and sun where the thermometer hits 50° C in the summer, have they chosen this “arctic” destination where the winter darkness lasts for months and the temperatures are freezing? What kind of life do the Syrians and Iraqis who have fled the Caliph’s butchers actually have at these latitudes?

 

 

The reason filters through from the news and from this country’s geography: its population is under 10 million, it has a very low population density (approximately 21 inhabitants per square kilometre) and the reception of foreigners has always been considered an opportunity for economic growth. One of Sweden’s hallmarks. Only very recently has a part of the electorate begun to go over to the right, rewarding the Swedish Democratic Party for their anti-migrant slogans (at the last elections, the latter recorded 15% of the preferential votes but a survey puts it at 25% today).

 

 

Those arriving from war-torn countries and seeking political asylum more or less know the procedure to follow for a residence permit: the steps and the time-frames are clear. They know they are guaranteed the state’s support during the months of checking and waiting and that they are ensured a place to live (camps, refugee centres or relatives’ houses), financial support to maintain themselves and their families, interlocutors tasked with answering their various questions and a process of work integration. And there is an additional advantage: immigrants are given the possibility of choosing the town where they would like to live and, therefore, of being close to relatives and friends.

 

This is how today’s Södertälje (re-christened the “Aleppo” of the North or, in an even more hybrid fashion, “Mesopotäljie”) has come about: within only a few decades, a piece of Mesopotamia has detached itself from its original geographical setting and grafted itself onto Scandinavia. A complex transplant and one that is still under way.

 

 

Södertälje lies thirty kilometres south-west of Stockholm. A light railway train packed daily with thousands of commuters takes you there in forty minutes. If you ignore the Nordic architecture all around you when you get out at the little station, the facial features, the way the passers-by are dressed and the language the women are speaking at the bus-stop all transport you to Syria or Iraq. Of the 91,000 inhabitants, 47,000 are of Swedish origin whilst approximately 44,000 are of foreign origin (a good 32,000 of whom were born abroad), coming from Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon in that order. Only about 800 are Muslim. The others are Christian and Arabic is the primary (and, for many, still the only) language to be heard in whole quarters of this locality that stretches placidly beneath the Swedish-blue sky.

 

 

“We are a migration town and this fact is now a part of our identity,” observes the Mayor of Södertälje, Boel Godner, who is a Social Democrat on her second mandate. “The most recent tide of refugees escaping the Islamic State’s terrorists must be added to the huge number of arrivals after the war in 2003 and the Arab rebellions in 2011. We have developed a considerable experience in refugee reception. We know how to manage the arrival of hundreds of children in our schools but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less dramatic every time we have to see to settling families, giving work to immigrants or finding support for the children who don’t speak Swedish and need to be integrated in the classroom. But this is our reality.” The only aspect of the Swedish system for welcoming foreigners that she would change is the possibility of choosing one’s town of residence, because this can cause imbalances between different areas in the country. Up to five or six families live together in some of the houses in Södertälje. They give each other a hand but life becomes tense and complicated for everyone. The unemployment rate is very high amongst the immigrants and about 10% of those detained in Swedish prisons are Christians who got caught up in crime.

 

 

Not Enough Churches

 

 

You can spend a whole day in Södertälje on a most illuminating tour of the churches serving the various Catholic and Orthodox communities. Unlike the one serving the Lutheran Church of Sweden (the state religion until 2000), with its ever-declining following, these churches are packed on Sundays. There isn’t enough room for some communities: either they build extensions, when possible, or they build whole new churches. Right now, the construction of a new Chaldean church is imminent: “For them, going to church is a fundamental, an existential matter and it is therefore right that they should be able to build the churches that they actually need,” the mayor comments.

 

 

In the little Syriac Orthodox church dedicated to St Gabriel that has been created inside a public housing complex occupied decades ago now by Syrian refugees, they have turned on screens showing texts proclaimed in three different languages: Arabic, Syriac and Swedish. The language of the liturgy is now incomprehensible to the new generations and the parish priest tries to cope with his believers’ linguistic Babel with the aid of technology.

 

The two Syriac Orthodox cathedrals stand only a few kilometres apart. Saint Jacob, the seat of the bishop Julius Abdul Ahad Shabo, and Saint Ephrem, led by the other bishop of the same Church, Dioscorus Benjamin Aktas. Rumour has it that the division into two separate dioceses existing on the same territory has been caused by clan issues that not even their common Patriarch, Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, was able to resolve when he came on a pastoral visit recently. It appears that those who interpret membership of the Syriac Orthodox Church in a more ethnic-political key prefer the first. To return to the football metaphor, they would be the “Assyriska” fans, the ones who basically call themselves “Assyrians.” The second, on the other hand, is frequented by those who put the emphasis on religious practice as the factor that unites the community, who support “Syrianska” and prefer to describe themselves as “Syriac Aramaean.”

 

 

St Oscar is the patron saint of the Latin-rite Catholic parish in Södertälje. The church named after him also embraces the nearby little towns of Nykvarn and Järna, totalling approximately 5,120 believers divided into 2,400 Chaldeans, 680 Syriac Catholics, 150 Armenians, 58 Maronites, 5-10 Melchites and 5-6 Swedes (these numbers refer only to the believers who have been registered and not all of them – particularly the most recent arrivals – have been). Here, on Sundays, Mass is celebrated in Swedish under the Roman rite at 10.00 am, in Arabic under the Armenian rite at 11.30 am and in Syriac under the Chaldean rite at 5.00 pm.

 

The Catholic church dedicated to St John hosts a part of the Chaldean community. The latter answers to the Roman Catholic bishop of Stockholm, Mons. Anders Arborelius, but rumour has it that it is beginning to ask for a Chaldean bishop of its own to be appointed for Södertälje. The choir meets here to practise in the early morning and first thing in the afternoon. The members are young. Like Shahd Malalakha, aged 23, who arrived here nine years ago. She works in a café, is married to an Iraqi and finds what she needs to live within the walls of this church. “Emigrating to Sweden has completely changed my relationship with the faith. It has become a much more personal issue.” She doesn’t have any Swedish friends and doesn’t really know why not. She does have Muslim acquaintances, however: despite what she suffered at the hands of terrorist groups in her homeland, she nurses no desire for revenge. “We are children of Jesus, who taught us on the cross to forgive. We can only imitate Him: the Muslims will come to know us bit by bit.”

 

 

Mary, who escaped from her little village between Mosul and Erbil, does not agree with her. “The Muslims have taken everything away from us. And we cannot go home because every kind of trust we had in them has died. They have occupied our houses and scattered bombs everywhere. Given the opportunity for violence, they don’t hold back.” But if Shahd is not afraid of Islam, she does fear another enemy. “In Iraq they cut your head off but here they cut your mind to pieces.” For her, with its proposal of an “excessive” freedom, the outside world exerts an attraction capable of annihilating one’s personal relationship with God. This is also a worry for Yusuf Matte, who directs the choir while his children Antonius and Maria play amongst the church pews. “I am not worried for myself but I am for my children. How will they manage to keep the faith if the schoolteacher here keeps repeating to them that God does not exist and proposes quite another way of living?”

 

 

The risk of losing one’s faith is a real one also for Håkan Sandvik, a pastor in the Church of Sweden. He is actively involved with the Sankt Ignatios Academy, which promotes ecumenism between the Churches of the Byzantine tradition and the Oriental Orthodox Churches present in the country. “The Patriarch of an Eastern Church,” recounts Håkan, who lived in the Middle East for twelve years, “recommended to his faithful, as they were about to leave the Middle East, ‘If you really must leave, at least don’t go to Sweden, if you don’t want to lose your children’.” An awareness that, according to what he says, goes hand in hand with another striking paradox: by welcoming the Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers, by almost “inviting” them and offering them better living conditions, Sweden would end up playing the role of involuntary “accomplice” to ISIS in its diabolical strategy of emptying the Middle East of its Christian presence.

 

But what is happening during this transitional season of Christians who have already emigrated and been uprooted but are not yet integrated? Something that has to do with a slow transformation generated by the conflict-risking encounter between opposing life-styles and world visions. If there are those who fear for their children and the traditio of the faith, there are also those who thank Providence for conversions (the right word would be metanoia) occurring during the passage from East to North. People like Manzin Noel. When, as a boy, he lived in the Nineveh plain, he used to go to Mass simply “because” - because everyone expected him to go. But when he arrived here, he had to decide. He chose to go because he himself wanted to and because it helped him to live. To the point of choosing to become a deacon at the Catholic diocese’s service. “We are here to say through our lives that it is beautiful to be Christians. Faith is not a question of rules or traditions to be preserved but, rather, a beauty of life to bear witness to, as Pope Francis says.” Like him, May and her young niece Maryam, originally from Mosul, are grateful to the Sweden that welcomed them. They do not tire of giving something back by letting it show, not only through words, how important their personal relationship with Jesus is. So, too, for Elias and Mary, who come from Beirut. They arrived here in 2006, during the war in Lebanon, and after the great effort they made at the beginning, they are proud to consider themselves “perfectly integrated” Christian Lebanese Swedes. “When I arrived,” Mary recounts, “I felt I was alone and I thought it was better to live for someone. And for whom if not for Jesus?” “If you want to become holy,” comments Elias, “you must come to Sweden.”

 

 

A Breath of Fresh Air

 

 

This is how Mons. Arborelius, the first Swedish bishop for a diocese founded only in 1953, describes the effect of these ancient-new Christians now on Swedish soil: a possible means of revitalizing the local Catholic church. An invitation to return to the heart of the faith for people who seem to have expelled God from their lives forever. “Together with the members of the Orthodox Church, we Catholics make up barely 1-2% of the population, with 44 parishes in a country that is one of the largest in Europe. Our society is considered one of the most secularized and only the person who has a “personalized” faith can survive as a Christian here. But the trend is changing. Take Södertälje: it was the town with the lowest rate of Sunday mass attendance and today it is the one with the highest!”

 

Thanks to them. Thanks to young people like Jessica Moussa, aged 23, with her dark eyes, long hair and radiant, Lebanese smile. She was elected president of the diocesan youth pastoral work committee, she speaks fluent Arabic, Swedish and English, she organizes thousands of activities for young Catholics and she is the most appropriate spokesperson for the composite youth community: the Chaldeans are the most numerous, then there are the Croats and the Poles. They do not always understand each other, because they use different languages. What they have in common, however, is the same need of a place where they can withdraw to feel that they are not alone and where they can learn to have their answer ready when asked about their faith.

 

 

“These Eastern Christians are disorienting us!” observes Helena D’Arcy, a very blonde, blue-eyed Danish Swede who is in charge of the Pro-Life Movement and expecting her sixth child. “In their attachment to the Church and the way they dedicate a special attention to the family and their inter-personal relationships they are shaking up this paradise of narcissistic individualism we have constructed for ourselves. Even if you only barely refer to God while talking to the Swedes, it seems to be like water off a duck’s back. And then these communities based on the personal and community tie with God arrive right in our midst. Purely by chance?” And they come bringing all their contradictions and problems with them. For example, it is the immigrant Christians who lodge the majority of requests for recognition of the nullity of marriages with the ecclesiastical court. Some of the marriages arranged in their homelands break down when they come into contact with a completely different social and legal context and one that heavily protects single women. Social conventions that are still carved in stone in the homeland often crumble here, as if a sort of chemical reaction were triggered by contact with different elements.

 

 

Face to Face with Mestizaje at Vadstena

 

 

But if you want to go deeper into the process under way in Sweden and look this mutation occurring through the crossing of traditions and cultures in the face, you must go as far as Vadstena. Here, every two years, the Swedish Catholic Church’s people meet up at a happening, to get to know each other and to celebrate a solemn Mass with their bishop. The journey from the capital to the little town dedicated to Saint Bridget, patron saint of Sweden, clocks up kilometres and kilometres of uninterrupted forests and expanses of that green that arouses nostalgia as soon as you take your eyes off it. The multi-coloured, multi-lingual diocesan celebration takes place at the end of the summer, within the walls of an ancient castle. The diocese comprises approximately 170 nationalities; an intricate social fabric that tells its story through various stands dedicated to the diocesan charitable works, religious orders and Pro-Life movement, as well as the diocese’s various other movements and charisms, publishing house and other media….

 

 

Here, at Vadstena, the loose ends of the matter are tied up and the challenges facing those Christians who have left the Middle East perhaps never to return because of persecutions become clearer. On the one hand, the “preservation” challenge is perceived to be a pressing one. The challenge to save and protect that priceless heritage of a middle eastern Christian culture, an interweaving of values and traditions that goes back two thousand years, a treasure tempered by repeated persecutions over the centuries that, today, right in its land of origin, is the target of a violence that is systematically aiming at annihilating it.

 

This is the great undertaking that animates the daily commitment of dozens of cultural, sporting and recreational associations that have spontaneously sprung up over the decades in Sweden and are united under the umbrella of federations such as the Syriac-Aramaean and Assyrian ones. Their members number tens of thousands and they have equipped themselves with newspapers and satellite TVs. The road that they have chosen is a fascinating one. It generates a sense of belonging and a powerful, militant pride that you can encounter in those wearing the bracelet with the inscription “Seyfo”: so as never to forget – not even for a moment – the genocide of Armenians and Syriacs at the beginning of the twentieth century.

 

 

And yet, for all its audacity, this road has a weak point: it is as if it were asking those who take it to play defence, looking back to yesterday rather than forward to tomorrow. But if you use all your energy to remember how life once was, to restore a glorious Assyrian past and to defend yourself from the outside, how can you move forward? On the other hand, however, the challenge is born of an abandoning yourself to real encounters with your neighbours, here and now, and to the point of risking a reciprocal mixing of cultures and civilizations, which is possible when you lower your defences, albeit without betraying yourself. An openness that can generate novelty, even if no one is yet able to gauge the situation and foresee either what or how or when. There is no shortage of risks on this tightrope, either: the risk of losing your footing and yourself, of forgetting your uniqueness and originality or allowing it to be so eroded that it disappears. Of becoming secularized, as that eastern patriarch fears.

 

And yet when, at Vadstena, you simply stop for a moment to look at that people that comes from every remote village in Sweden after already crossing a thousand frontiers first, this second challenge – the challenge of mestizaje – is confirmed as a fact that history has already imposed by itself. A challenge that certainly needs to be recognized and managed but one that it would make no sense to fight or try to check.

 

It is a very arduous challenge but one that is certainly generative.

 

 

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