Tag: christianity

Christian solidarity in Örebro

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The events in Iraq over recent weeks have shocked the world and cries out for action, for response, but it is easy to feel helpless as we observe from a distance the slaughter of innocents, Christians, Muslims and Yazidis. We look to our governments to react but in Sweden at least there has been a noticeable lack of comment at a government level. In the last day a few headlines have caught my attention, amongst others an article about the deportation of a Yazidi man, an asylum seeker who the Immigration Department has decided to send back to Iraq because they have assessed the situation there to not be of sufficient threat to his safety, and because they believe there are adequate safe havens in Iraqi refugee camps (see http://www.svt.se/nyheter/varlden/migrationsverket-fortsatter-att-utvisa-yazidier). This seems extraordinary in light of the constant reports in the media of the aim of ISIS to wipe out this people group, effective genocide. One wonders just how dangerous it needs to be in a country to justify asylum in Sweden. The Swedish government has said that they will respond to the crisis with humanitarian aid (though I am not aware of any forthcoming yet), but they have no intention of getting involved militarily. The Kurdish forces that seem to represent the only significant military resistance on the ground in Iraq need arms, but despite the fact that weapons represent a major export in Sweden there appears no intention of Sweden to even provide this kind of assistance, let alone actual troops.

DSC_5543Örebro is home to thousands of Assyrian Christians, families who have fled from their various homelands in Turkey and Syria. They speak a language close to Aramaic, the native tongue of Jesus. They are, unlike many Westerners, proudly Christian, and unashamed of their allegiance to the Syrian Orthodox Church in this country where it is regarded as somewhat inappropriate to speak publicly about personal faith. These Assyrian Christians have a heritage of persecution and genocide. The events of 1915 are still fresh in the minds of many even if they happened long before contemporary Assyrians were born. The Assyrian community in Sweden has been shocked by the events unfolding in Iraq in the last few weeks. Although many Swedes (and not just Swedes, but Westerners in general) seem to find it relatively easy to turn a blind eye, possibly even to think things can’t be as bad as the media is making out (think of the reaction of the Immigration Department), Assyrian Christians have no illusions about just how bad things can be. They are acutely aware that if ISIS means to wipe out Christians (not to mention Yazidis and even Muslims of other persuasions) then they will do it if no-one stops them. They are also acutely aware that the ambitions of ISIS are not limited to Syria and Iraq, but to the whole Muslim world and beyond.

Today we joined the Assyrian church (St Marias kyrka) in a march in central Örebro to demonstrate solidarity with the threatened peoples of Iraq and opposition to the ISIS terrorists. The march was a quiet affair – indeed it was meant to be silent, symbolising the response of the Swedish government to the crisis, the seeming reluctance of people in power in Sweden to denounce ISIS. It was a privilege to walk with thousands of Assyrians through the streets of our city. Most of the churches of Örebro joined in, and even some secularists – the Humanism Society – supported the initiative. At the end of the march we gathered in Olof Palmes Torg to listen to various speakers, from both the Swedish Christian communities and the Assyrian Christian community (as well as a few politicians). We were reminded that what is happening in Iraq at the moment represents the plans of a very powerful group of terrorists to eradicate ancient Eastern Christianity from the earth. Many see this church as the cradle of Christianity, even as the cradle of what we know as Western civilisation. It was sobering to reflect on the events unfolding in the world today.

At the end we walked back to the car and crossed the big square in town, Stortorget, where various political groups were speaking on their soapboxes. There is an election in Sweden in a few weeks time and the political parties of the nation are presenting their visions for a better Sweden to the populace. There have been signs around town advertising the rallying cries of various party representatives. These vary from the usual things such as job creation and school reforms to some which are blatantly ridiculous. Perhaps the most embarrassing is the picture of an aspiring politician with the words beneath, “Scrap TV fees.” In the context of the times we are living in can there be anything more trivial?

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Secularism in society

An interesting debate article in the Swedish evening newspaper, Aftonbladet, today, was entitled, “Our Swedish view of faith is uniquely aggressive.” (Read the article in Swedish here). It referred to questions raised as to the suitability of a certain Elisabeth Svantesson for her appointment as Minister for Employment because she at one time was a member of a large church in Sweden called Livets Ord – Word of Life. Similar doubts about suitability and competence for a particular appointment were raised in 2008 over a man named Per Eriksson who had been suggested as Dean (Rektor) of Lund University. A number of teachers at the university opposed his appointment because they believed that his Christian beliefs would compromise a truly scientific worldview.

Such views are not unique to Sweden, of course, though the writer of this article seems to feel that in Sweden such views tend to be particularly aggressive, perhaps more so than in other countries. Such a view of religion grew out of the Enlightenment of the mid-1700s, when reason and education came to challenge religion as the only reliable foundations for society. In the 1800s the writings of Karl Marx, who believed that a society which allowed religion to exist was sick, and Sigmund Freud, who believed that religious persons were mentally unstable, added fuel to the fire of unbelief. Pointing to the monumental failures of the church through the centuries a growing number of voices called for separation of church and state and maintained that religion was obsolete. Religion came to be seen as, at best a problem, and at worst a threat, to civilization. So was born the secular state, which has largely triumphed in Sweden, as in many other Western countries. Anyone confessing allegiance to a faith is seen as suspect, unreliable, unstable, ignorant, harboring hidden agendas which threaten the fabric of society as we know it.

However, according to the article, contemporary research into religion does not support such a view of either religious people or the practice of religion. It reveals that contemporary religion has been “decentralized,” and is no longer controlled by a religious authority. People read and interpret religious texts themselves and practice religion differently according to their understanding. The practice of faith does not imply the control of an individual by a centralized authority like a church, and what people believe about God does not necessarily reflect their ability or inability to function in modern society.

Furthermore, the writer of the article points out that secular society has no basis for connecting religion with the uneducated or weak-minded. To try to obstruct a person’s personal or career development because they have religious convictions, he suggests, is to betray a central democratic ideal, in which every person has the right to be heard and to pursue their life goals based on their personal ideas and values. It is unreasonable to portray religious people as an homogenous group. People should be judged on their merits and their performance, and not on their religious convictions. Whether they pray, and to whom they pray in their joy or sorrow, should be up up to them.

I remember a colleague who some years ago discovered, by accident, after having known me for some time, that I was a Christian. She was shocked. Until then she had apparently perceived me as a sensible, reasonable, perhaps even intelligent human being. She asked me bluntly if I was a Christian, not just a nominal Christian but a practicing believer, and her face fell when I confirmed her fears, and that I read the Bible and went to church, and even tried to live my life according to the teaching I had received from such sources. I could see her rapidly revising her whole perception of me. For her I was no longer normal, but had become suddenly strange, irrational, and probably psychologically and emotionally suspect.

The ironic thing is that we live in a society founded on values and ideals with their roots in the teachings of Jesus and a worldview based on a Biblical understanding of humanity. Yet at the same time that very society rejects belief in Jesus, and the practice of such a belief is seen as ignorant and irrational. Society seems to have always sought scapegoats, someone, or some group, to blame for the problems that exist. Nazi Germany blamed the Jews and had a particularly brutal solution to the problem. So called “Christian” Europe of the Middle Ages blamed devil worshippers and Jews amongst others. Modern secular society blames religion of all kinds, but particularly Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Christians have been subject to persecution and ridicule down through the ages. It is not new. The current feelings in society simply revive ancient prejudices and hatreds. The real challenge for us Christians at times like these is not to try to return society to some remembered golden age of Christendom, but to love those who ridicule us, to pray for those who persecute us, and to reach out with love and compassion to those in need around us. Just as Jesus did.