By Kaj Engelhart
18 June 2016
Sweden, a Scandinavian country in northern Europe, has changed considerably in recent years, from being a very homogenous nation to now being a highly multicultural and multi-religious one. Dominating the religious field is the Christian Lutheran Church of Sweden, covering around 70% of the population of approximately 10 million. Catholics are around 200 000. There are Orthodox churches, of people from around 20 different nationalities, and some of independent Evangelical churches as well.
Muslims in Sweden number about 400 000, and this figure has been increasing, with the influx of around 170 000 refugees last year. After opening its borders to large groups of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia last autumn, Sweden has now introduced strict controls at its borders, reducing the number of new groups arriving, including in order to ensure proper housing, schooling, work and other requisites for the integration of newly-arrived migrants.
With the growing number of Muslims, there is an evident need for intercultural and interreligious dialogue in Swedish society. A growing number of local interreligious councils as well as a national interreligious council, uniting religious leaders of around 20 denominations, try to meet this need, as do various church-related and other NGOs. The Lutheran and the Catholic churches have their own structures for establishing good relations with people of other traditions.
As the coordinator of the Catholic commission for interreligious dialogue in Sweden, let me give you some glimpses from the “field”.
One evening, I meet a young Muslim who I know from a conference about jihadism in one of the Stockholm mosques. When he understood that I am Christian, he asked me for a talk, and so we found ourselves chatting over a cup of tea in a Stockholm hotel lobby.
Rashid is around 30, a former refugee from Afghanistan, where he taught in a madrasa in a village. He is a pious Muslim, and well acquainted with both the Quran and the Bible. He tries to show me, calmly and respectfully, how much of our Christian faith is not founded in the Bible: Jesus was God’s son, yes, like all men who are also called sons of God. But was he God? No, God cannot have a son, even less a divine son. The story of his death and resurrection is falsified, and the divine Trinity is a Christian corruption of the monotheistic principle of God, with no ground in the Bible.
Rashid presents the corrective picture given in the Quran. He is keen to underline that Islam accepts both the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, but that the Quran is the final and perfect revelation, completing and correcting all that has been written before.
I listen to him and explain that not everything in the Christian faith was written down verbally and literally in the Bible. While the Quran for a Muslim is the exact word of God—in Arabic—for a Christian, the Bible was written by humans under inspiration from God. Christians believe that Jesus promised that the Spirit of God would accompany his followers through history and that the truth of the Gospels, clarified and formulated consequently by ecumenical councils and dogmatic decisions by the church, grows in depth and clarity through the ages.
This is difficult for Rashid to accept. He is used to seeing the revelation completed in the Quran, while I understand revelation as an ongoing process, based on the life and deeds of Jesus in the Bible. We talk and listen alternatingly. We even laugh and joke. And a new friendship is taking shape!
Rashid asks me what I think of Islam. I answer that to me, many things are holy and true there, and that I have had beautiful and moving moments in Sufi and other places and that I admire Islamic architecture and appreciate the seriousness of many Muslims practicing their faith. I tell him that I wish him to be a good person and a good Muslim and that I admire his knowledge of the Quran and the Bible. And I thank him for wanting to share with me that which is dearest to him—his faith—and say that I have the same intention. We leave each other, after two hours’ talking and listening, in friendship, shaking hands and wishing to meet again…
It is the first evening of Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, a dark December evening in the Great synagogue in Stockholm. Lots of people, happily greeting each other, shaking hands and gossiping. Near the Aron HaKodesh, the shrine containing the Torah scrolls, is a big Chanukah candleholder, with a candle for each day of the festival. After an initial piece of music, the rabbi of the congregation, a woman, greets the assembly and introduces the ceremony.
Now something extraordinary happens. A female Lutheran pastor and an imam from a mosque in Stockholm join the rabbi in lighting the candles in the holder! They make a reflection on light. They also affirm the importance of remaining united in faith in the one God and about the necessity to stand together in the face of evil, violence and cruelty.
All of us present in the synagogue, mostly Jews but others too, are moved and thankful for this reflection. We leave after the ceremony is over, going back into Swedish cold winter darkness, but warmed by the feeling that there is hope, after all…
Christmas Celebration In The “House Of God” In Fisksaetra, A Modern Suburb Of Stockholm
On the first floor of the church, the local Catholic congregation is about to finish Mass. On the ground floor, supper is served for a big community of local inhabitants: unemployed or lowly-paid people, lonely mothers with kids, elderly men and women, newly-arrived asylum seekers and paperless refugees, and some well-fed Swedish neighbours, coming out of curiosity. You can hear Swedish spoken, as well as Arabic, Polish. Spanish, Russian…
After the meal, everybody ascends to the upper floor. The church has been transformed into a party hall, with a Christmas tree in the middle, and traditional Swedish Christmas dancing starts. All take part, young and old, Christians and others. The local imam and his veiled wife are dancing, among other Muslims from the Middle East and Africa, as well as blue-eyed, fair-haired Swedes.
The “House of God” in Fisksaetra is a common project of the Lutheran parish, the Catholic community and the local mosque. The aim is to build a combined block with a church and a mosque wall-to-wall. In the meantime, all three stakeholders do what they can to create a spirit of solidarity and friendship in the local area, with so people from so many nations and religious and nonreligious traditions represented there.
Listening to people from different backgrounds, including different religious traditions and seeking to help them get empowered materially, socially, educationally and psychologically and feel at home in Sweden brings about a firm conviction that this is the right way to meet today’s challenges in a world that is getting bigger and smaller at the same time!
Kaj Engelhart is the Director of the Commission for Dialogue in the Catholic Diocese of Stockholm, Sweden