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Sweden’s Religious Community Responds to Flood of Refugees

By Birgitta Winberg

DOING WHAT CAN BE DONE

During the autumn and winter of 2015 Sweden has had a great influx of refugees, mainly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. More than 250,000 men, women and children have arrived in Sweden in recent months. Sweden, a nation of nine million inhabitants, has been caught unprepared.  Sweden and Germany are the two countries in Europe that have received the largest number of refugees. Södertälje, a small town south of Stockholm, has received more refugees from Iraq than all of the United States. The comparison between Europe and the U.S. in receiving refugees is stunning. The U.S. has received a total of 2,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Europe has received around two million people from these countries during the last six months!

Sweden is a country dominated by the Lutheran Church of Sweden. About 75 percent of Sweden’s population are members of the Church of Sweden. Around 400,000 Swedes have a Muslim background.

European Volunteers Respond

 Syrian and Iraqi refugees arriving from Turkey at the Greek island of Lesbos – Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Ggia

Syrian and Iraqi refugees arriving from Turkey at the Greek island of Lesbos – Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Ggia

Since September 2015 Europe has changed due to the influx of refugees arriving via Turkey to the Greek islands, in small, overcrowded boats. Volunteers including doctors and nurses from all over Europe went to the embarkation sites to offer aid. Many of them have raised money to buy food and clothes for the refugees, who, after being rescued, began their long journey through Europe.

In Sweden a voluntary network called Refugees Welcome has been created. They were present mainly at the railway stations in the major cities. They helped refugees with clothing and housing, medical care and train tickets for people who wanted to travel to other parts of Sweden, or through Sweden to Finland.

The Church of Sweden is active in helping the refugees. Many churches and parish locations were opened for people to stay. In the larger cities with a Muslim community, the mosques were also opened up to give shelter. The different religious communities started to work together. In Stockholm the parish of St. Katarina approached the Stockholm mosque to find ways of working together. A Muslim organization called Islamic Relief also joined them. In smaller towns and villages the Church of Sweden is the only religious community that exists – many of them opened up their different buildings for Muslim prayers and also help the refugees with learning the Swedish language and finding new Swedish friends.

 Syrian refugees being registered after arriving at a train station in Stockholm – Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Frankie Fouganthin

Syrian refugees being registered after arriving at a train station in Stockholm – Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Frankie Fouganthin

The refugees are mainly Muslims, both Shia and Sunni, but some are Christians. Most of them are men, but there are also many unaccompanied minors. The city of Malmö alone has received more than 1000 unaccompanied minors.

The interreligious cooperation differs depending on the presence of religious representatives. In the bigger cities of Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg, interreligious activities more extensive due to the higher numbers of Muslim population. Interreligious meetings work better in places where there already exists an interreligious council and where the different religious representatives already know one another. The main issues are working together for housing, assisting with the asylum process, and with social support. But in some places, for example in St. Katarina parish, the contacts have led to panel discussions among religious leaders and shared actions, such as generating newspaper articles on the importance of receiving the stranger and helping the poor and homeless. Of course, showing the new refugees that we can coexist and respect one another in Sweden is crucial.

 Lessons in Swedish at a refugee camp in Lund                   – Photo: BW

Lessons in Swedish at a refugee camp in Lund                   – Photo: BW

In Lund, a small town in the south of Sweden, the Catholic church, the Islamic Cultural Centre, and the Christian Council of Lund are cooperating. They work mainly with assisting refugees with clothes and housing but also have the goal of helping integrate the newcomers into the community.

In Sweden it is against the law to register the religious affiliation of a person. Some of the refugees are open with their faith, some are not. Some are very religious and some are secularized. So, when working with refugees, it is sometimes difficult to see if this work is interreligious or not!

It has become obvious to the religious communities in Sweden that we have a lot in common. We knew that before but now it has become more obvious that we have common goals and values.                                                                                         

Sweden Closes the Door

After some months of a welcoming attitude from the Swedish government, something happened. Local authorities complained about lack of resources. They had problems with finances, housing, schools, and so on. Suddenly the attitude from the Swedish government changed, and the borders were closed for people without identity papers. This created objections from human rights organizations and religious communities. The Swedish Interreligious Council wrote a article that was published in Sweden’s biggest newspaper, objecting to identity controls at the borders.

 A Church of Sweden poster in the Stockholm subway system last December quotes the New Testament, Luke 2:6: “She gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” 

A Church of Sweden poster in the Stockholm subway system last December quotes the New Testament, Luke 2:6: “She gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” 

The refugee camps are overcrowded and conflicts have occurred. Some conflicts are of religious origin, tensions between Sunni and Shia, or between Muslims and Christians. But most of the conflicts are of “humankind” – too many people gathered in a small place, worried for the future.  Many refugees are traumatized, of course, and that comes to the surface after settling down in new surroundings.

Both bad and good things come out of this refugee situation in Sweden. The good things are many: the goodwill of people, the many volunteers, the interreligious cooperation, new contacts between different religious groups. But there is also a backlash: a growing xenophobia and Islamophobia, and a growing populistic party, the Sweden Democrats, which now has a place in our parliament.

An article was published by the Swedish Interreligious Council, reacting to the inhumanity of the new border-control rules. But otherwise it seems like everyone is tired. The volunteers have worked for months 24/7. Many are at their limits. The churches and parishes have done their best, but it takes a toll to work with traumatized people with so many needs.

Everyone is now waiting to see what happens. Many refugees will be sent back because they lack what is required to get asylum. Then people that have helped the newcomers have to cope with that loss. There was a stabbing in a home for unaccompanied minors, and one woman on the staff was killed. The best that has come out of this extreme situation is that people have been cooperating, getting to know one another, discovering other religious groups, and working fruitfully with the authorities and migration-offices. A lot of good-hearted people have come forward. We will see what happens in the future.