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.
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.
[rebelmouse-image 27088208 alt="""" original_size="200x278" expand=1]
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.