"We have opened a door that we cannot shut" – church and mosque unite
STOCKHOLM, April 11 (UNHCR) – The refugee crisis in Sweden has provoked an outpouring of generosity from Swedes who are giving skills, time and money.
But it has also had the unexpected consequence of bringing two of Sweden's largest Muslim and Christian congregations closer together. Now they are going into business in a unique collaboration to provide accommodation for refugees - which, they hope, could set an example for interfaith cooperation across the world.
The venture will compete with big private companies that have attracted criticism in Swedish media for allegedly making fat profits by providing refugee shelters using money from the state.
"Their professionalism, language skills and understanding of other cultures made the mosque an obvious partner for us," says Olle Carlsson, the vicar of Katarina Church in the heart of Stockholm, which is pursuing the project with the nearby Stockholm Mosque.
"We are small, but we have a unique cooperation with an organization that has a lot of information, and the big asylum companies don't have that."
This is the first time a collaborative project like this has taken place between the two religious communities, says Abdallah Salah, secretary general of the charity Islamic Relief in Sweden, who is working at the mosque to establish the venture with the church.
"I hope we can export this idea to other countries, to show that we have to work together, live together, that we have a future together," Salah says. "We must find methods of cooperation, and we will find them."
The project is the result of four months unprecedented partnership between the church, which regularly has congregations of up to 1,000 people on Sundays, and the mosque, which sees several thousand Muslims stream though its doors each week for Friday prayers. Since September they have teamed up to provide beds for one-third of all the transit refugees who came through Stockholm on their way to other countries.
It began after Carlsson was on holiday in Greece, where he witnessed boats overflowing with desperate people. With thousands arriving at Stockholm's central station every week, it seemed like a natural step to contact the mosque, which is only a few hundred meters away from Katarina Church.
The church established a support group whose Facebook page has grown to over 2,600 people. Refugees would come to the mosque for food and a wash, then go to the church for a bed.
Mohammad, 27, who fled sectarian violence in Baghdad, was one of the Muslims who chose to sleep at the church - the first time he had ever set foot in a Christian church.
"In Stockholm at the station I was met by volunteers with food and water. They asked where would I prefer to go, the mosque or the church? I said the church," Mohammad recalls.
"It was a beautiful feeling. Back home Muslims are not allowed to go to churches. Some refugees came to the church just because they wanted to find out what it was like. They found people respected them, even though they were Christians and we were Muslims."
The welcome he received was overwhelming, Mohammad says. "Everyone was treated like a king at the church, I felt like a real human being for the first time in my life, I wasn't used to it. They were really good people."
However, both religious leaders say they have encountered opposition inside their congregations.
"There is some resistance and concern about this joint organization," Carlsson says. "Some people within our Christian community think we are submissive, but Jesus says 'Put yourself last in line.'" I mean, there is no reason to see this as a matter of prestige."
Critical voices have grown quiet as the project has evolved, he says.
Salah says he has also faced obstacles. "There have been a number of questions within our community, such as: 'How will you manage not to discuss theological issues?' … Some think it's a problem for Muslims to sleep in a Church," he says. "But I think we are managing it really well, I'm convinced this will work out."
The church can play a vital role in helping refugees integrate, Carlsson believes, by offering "a fast line into the Swedish community". "It is essential for the future of this country that we work together," he says.
Muslims and Christians in Sweden have spent 30 years discussing the differences between them, Salah says, and no one has dared to do something as concrete as what the mosque is now doing with the church.
"We need to stop getting hung up on the 10% that separates our religions, and instead focus on the 90% we have in common in our values and our perception of good and evil," he says.
And by working together, each side learns much more about the other, Carlsson adds.
"The whole process is very exciting. Even though I know a little about Islam I still feel very uneducated. But the more time we spend together my understanding increases, and I notice how it affects my family and my colleagues, because there are still many prejudices in Sweden," Carlsson says.
For Mohammad, theological disagreements between the two faiths are far less important than the much-needed support they can give to people like him. "The mosque cooperating with the church to help people - that's what everyone should do," he says.
With the launch of a joint business together, the "romantic phase" of collaboration between church and mosque is over, Carlsson says. And by having an official company structure, with agreed procedures for resolving disputes, there will be no going back to the old days when the two religions only ever spoke to each other about their differences.
Says Carlsson: "We have opened a door that we cannot shut."
By David Crouch in Stockholm