Sweden Asks: Are Muslim And Christian Refugees The Same?

Sweden has long been a haven for Christians from the Middle East. Will it show the same humanitarian spirit for Muslims fleeing Iraq? The debate heats up before national elections.

The issue of Iraqi Christians in Sweden has become the upcoming elections' primary topic.
The issue of Iraqi Christians in Sweden has become the upcoming elections' primary topic.
Olivier Truc

SÖDERTÄLJE — It's Sunday, and families who have just attended mass are now heading towards the basement of the small St. Gabriel church in the shopping mall. It's late August, and we're in Ronna, one of the two mostly Assyrian neighborhoods in Södertälje, some 30 kilometers south of the Swedish capital of Stockholm. After blessing a little girl kneeling inside the Syriac Orthodox church, Father Yacub also disappears down the stairs.

In the room below, about 100 people have gathered — the men on one side, rosaries in hand, and women and children on the other. All come from Syria, Turkey and Iraq. Surrounded by the Assyrians are Mayor Boel Godner, a social democrat, and Father Yacub, who welcomes everybody in the language of Syriac. One of the Assyrian attendees is Yilmaz Kerimo, a Swedish parliament member with Turkish origins.

As Sweden's Sept. 14 general election draws nearer, the issue of Iraqi Christians has become the campaign's primary topic. Södertälje has been a sanctuary of Middle East Christians since the 1960s, and Assyrians account for more than a third of the 90,000 inhabitants here. Anything that happens in Iraq's Nineveh Province — home to the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh — has direct consequences on this industrial city blighted by social issues.

"Södertälje is the most Christian city in Sweden," the mayor boasts. But soon, she acknowledges the housing problems, the families squeezed into tiny apartments, the desperately overcrowded schools. Questions abound, especially about the arrival of non-Christian refugees, although they are a minority.

"Why do we take Muslims here?" one woman asks.

"Sweden is a humanitarian country that accepts refugees from all over the world," Mayor Godner replies. "We can't refuse asylum to people because of their religion."

Another woman speaks. "If you accept more refugees, where are you going to accommodate them?"

Still top of mind in this room is conservative Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's unexpected warning a few days ago that Sweden would be faced with a wave of asylum seekers because of the crisis in northern Iraq. Until then, the campaign had been dominated by issues such as deterioration of the education system and the profits made by private companies in the public sector. The country’s Migration Board has asked for an extra 5 billion euros ($6.4 billion) over the next four years to deal with the expected wave of migrants.

Iraqi-born Swedish politician Abir Al-Sahlani — Photo: Henrik Hansson Globaljuggler

"I know this will cause tensions," the prime minister said. "So I ask of the Swedish people that they show patience and open their hearts." He was quick to add that the effort to accommodate refugees ruled out any extra expenditures in other sectors and that election promises were a thing of the past. After eight years in power, his Conservative party now trails the Social Democrats in the polls.

A refugee haven

Reinfeldt was accused of playing into the hands of the far right by implying that the arrival of refugees impeded reform. He was particularly criticized in Södertälje, especially after the daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter revealed that the city had accommodated 77 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants between 2006 and 2013, while the prime minister's hometown of Täby, north of Stockholm, had only accommodated three per 1,000.

"We haven't waited to open our hearts," Mayor Godner insists. "For eight years, Anders Borg — the conservative finance minister — did not lift a finger to support the towns that offered shelter to the refugees." She promises that with the Social Democrats in power, she will do everything to ban the free settlement of refugees in Sweden. "Instead, I will push for all towns to accommodate their share of refugees."

But Afram Yakoub, chairman of the Assyrian Federation of Sweden, based in Södertälje, instead favors helping Christians in the Middle East. "We are opposed to the arrival of Iraqis here," he says. "We must help them stay in Iraq. Otherwise we are playing into the hands of the terrorists who are ethnically cleansing the region. Let's arm them instead, as we do with the Kurds." But this idea seems to have little support.

"The Iraqi wave between 2006 and 2008 was unique, but since the summer of 2012, the need from Syria has been even bigger," explains Johan Ward, who is in charge of integrating asylum seekers in the city. In September 2013, Sweden decided to give a permanent residence permits to all Syrians who were authorized to stay in the country.

Middle East Christians have built themselves a haven in Sweden, with their own soccer teams, television networks, successful restaurants, churches, religious and political divisions, and representatives in all parties from the left to the far right. Across the country, dozens of Assyrians are candidates in the upcoming elections. In the past, there have been several Assyrian parliament members and even a minister.

Meanwhile, the flood of migrants won't subside. According to the Migration Board, Södertälje will be the destination of many of northern Iraq's Christians in the coming spring.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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