How Refugees Trigger Sweden’s Orthodoxy Boom by Johannes Ottestig and Inger Alestig

Breathing new life into Christianity in Sweden, the Orthodox Church is also a key hub for immigrants to learn Swedish language and become integrated into Swedish society.

By Johannes Ottestig and Inger Alestig

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STOCKHOLM – While the 1,000-year-old Lutheran Church in Sweden is losing members, the recent influx of immigrants and refugees into Sweden is causing growth in another branch of Christianity: The Eastern Orthodox church.

As the number of Orthodox Christians in Sweden is growing, congregations are building new churches. The churches are key integration points where immigrants use their developing Swedish language skills. And, already in the Lutheran country, one Swedish man has become an Orthodox priest.

“I am very optimistic regarding the growth of Orthodoxy in Scandinavia,” says the Metropolis Cleopas Strongylis, archbishop of the Orthodox Church in Scandinavia said. “Wherever I go, I have been embraced equally by locals and immigrants who are interested in strengthening dialogue and cooperation between us. Also, I have welcomed many non-Orthodox believers into our churches Metropolis, our monastery - the first Greek Orthodox throughout Scandinavia - and in my office.”

According to the Orthodox churches' own statistics, there were just over 160,000 members of the eastern churches in Sweden in 2012-2013. Counting all the people with eastern church background living in Sweden, but who are not registered members, the number is growing to an estimated 400,000 people heading into 2017.

Södertälje, Sweden

A Lutheran Decline

At the same time, the percentage of the Swedish population who are members of the Swedish Church have fallen to 63 percent this year down from 83 percent before 2000, before the Swedish Lutheran church was separated from the state. The Swedish government reports that only eight percent of Swedes attend any religious services regularly. The 2012 Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism indicates that only 29 percent of Swedes claim to be religious, compared to 59 percent globally. Meanwhile, Sweden is seeing an uptick in Islam, Catholicism as well as in Orthodox Christianity.

After 22 years in the United States, the last post as dean at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Boston, Cleopas Strongylis said that moving to Stockholm in the summer of 2014 meant a big change. Firstly, the pace of life is slower in Stockholm, and the conditions for the Orthodox Church is very different in Sweden than in the US.

“The Greek Orthodox Church in America is so alive with members competing with each other to see who will contribute the largest sum to the church and leave behind the greatest legacy,” he said. “This is in sharp contrast to the Holy Metropolis of Sweden, where the contributions from members are small because most of our group comes from the working class.”

Strongylis has been traveling the country to meet local churches. Since he took office, the number of priests has increased from one to nine, the number of congregations has increased from seven to 11, while the church's office in Stockholm now is open for eight hours each day. He has also been working to modernize the communication and language in the church.

He said the congregations use mostly English and the language of their home countries. This, he thinks, better serves young people who may not be fluent in classical Greek used in the Divine Liturgy. He thinks it also welcomes converts and visitors who want to learn more about the Orthodox faith and traditions.

“We have welcomed new members continuously since my decision to incorporate Swedish and English in our services and in our communications,” he said. “Whether it's about curiosity, or a genuine interest in the faith, I am constantly contacted by non-Orthodox people who want to develop a relationship with our church, and I am very grateful for this.”

A History of Orthodox Christians in Sweden

Sweden saw a similar boom in Orthodox Christianity half a century ago. Orthodox Churches have been on Swedish soil since parts of Finland and Russia were grafted into the Sweden under the treaty of Stolbovo in 1617.

In the late 1960s, roughly 10,000 Syrian Orthodox refugees from countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Iraq started to arrive. During the 1970s, Sweden become one of the European countries that received the largest number of Assyrian / Syrian immigrants and the Orthodox church in Sweden increased to 60,000 members.

In the 1970s, Serbian, Macedonian and Romanian Orthodox churches were formed as well. In the 1970s and 1980s the Oriental Orthodox Churches in Sweden were established. Thanks to labor migrants and refugees from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Armenian churches were formed.

In 1981, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, which uses one of the oldest liturgies in Christendom, had more than 12,000 members in Sweden and at the end of the decade about 30,000. During the 1990s the church's member number grew to nearly 45,000.

With the wars in Iraq and Syria in the 2000s, new large groups of Syrians arrived. During the first decade, the numbers grew with nearly 8,000 new members. In 2011, more than 1,000 Syrian Orthodox baptisms took place and roughly 500 weddings were performed in Sweden.

Photos by Johannes Ottestig | From left to right: Dušan Rakovic, Nermin Sourial-Bassilious, Metropolitan Cleopas Strongylis, Thomas Arentzen.

A Suburban Hub of Orthodox Christians

In Södertälje, 40 minutes south of the Swedish capital of Stockholm, roughly 36 percent of residents were born abroad. In 1971, Sweden's first Syriac Orthodox church was founded in Södertälje and the Syrian Orthodox population have made their mark on the city for more than 50 years. Today two of Europe's largest Syriac Orthodox churches are in Sodertalje, sometimes called "Mesopotälje (a playful variation of Mesopotamia) or "Sweden's new Jerusalem."

By 2003, the city had welcomed many refugees from Iraq. The Iraqi influx has since been replaced by a wave of refugees from Syria. Last year, more than 160,000 refugees came to Sweden, and many wanted to settle in Södertälje. In 2015, some Swedish municipalities took in as few as two refugees while Södertälje received over 900. The city has some 85,000 inhabitants in all, and 45 per cent of those are immigrants or second-generation immigrants. Christianity remains the majority religion, and there are over 60 churches in the area.

The number of Christians Södertälje is unusual for Swedish cities. So is the number of Muslims here. Allegations persist that there are tensions between the two groups, but some young people do not agree.

The city has some 85,000 inhabitants in all, and 45 per cent of those are immigrants or second-generation immigrants. Christianity remains the majority religion, and there are over 60 churches in the area.

"Sometimes, if you have a theological discussion, people might not agree with each other. But you will never see violence that is religiously motivated," said a young Christian from Syria named Gabriel. He pointed out that Christians from the Middle East are accustomed to Muslim neighbors. "We are used to living as a minority in a country with a Muslim majority. Here, it is the other way round."

He said he had good Muslim neighbors in the Middle East, and bad ones, just like anywhere else. However, the present situation, where Christians are threatened and have to leave their territory, is upsetting. "Thinking of our culture – a culture that has existed for thousands of years, long before Muslims were there… the oldest Christian culture,” Gabriel said. “It is a terrible loss if it disappears."

Gabriel attends one of three Syrian Orthodox churches in the city for service every day. Church is a place where he meets friends, spends weekends and sees family. "For me, the church is my hope," Gabriel said.

A Visit From The Patriarch

In the spring of 2015, Ignatius Afrem II, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, made a historic visit to Sweden when he, as the first Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of 28 years, visited the country. One of the first stops was obviously Södertälje, where he met with parishioners and the city's leading politicians. “I become proud when I see how we contribute with doctors, lawyers, artists and journalists, the patriarch said to Länstidningen Sodertalje,” he said.

Just a few months later, Ignatius Afrem II was back in Sweden. This time he visited, among others, Sweden's second largest city Gothenburg, where he attended the inauguration of a new Syrian-Orthodox Church.

The old church, which opened in 1992, had become too small and the new church provided double the floor space. “Now we hope that our needs are covered for the next 10-20 years,” said Assembly President Robin Akbas.

The Orthodox Churches are mainly immigrant churches. But to improve integration in Sweden, a Lutheran theological school called the Stockholm School of Theology decided, this past Spring, to start a center for Eastern Christian Studies in cooperation with an Orthodox educational institution, the Sankt Ignatios Theological Academy. The historic decision meant it would be possible to study to become an Orthodox priest in Sweden. But it seeks state financial aid and to this date, the Swedish government has said no.

According to the theologian Thomas Arentzen, Eastern Catholic churches in Sweden are in a tension between being an expat church and a local church. Should they worship in Swedish or should they cherish the ties to the former homeland and its language and culture? Do the priests represent all of the Orthodox in the area or do they serve cultural communities?

A Swedish-Born Priest

On the first question, the St. Mark's Syrian Orthodox Church in the university town of Linköping, has a firm view. On May 8, 2015, a 33-year-old Swedish man named Joseph Togan became the first Syriac/Syrian Orthodox priest who was born and raised in Sweden. “The other Orthodox priests in Sweden have come here later in life and their Swedish skills are therefore varied,” he said when he was ordained. He said that Swedish language is vital to the Orthodox church in Sweden. “Many of our young people do not understand Syriac / Aramaic and Arabic. Therefore, we must speak Swedish to be able to meet them.”

Archbishop Dioskoros Benjamin Atas, who normally stays in Sodertalje, officiated at the ordination. He says any Orthodox priests in Sweden now must speak Swedish. If they come from other countries they must take basic Swedish courses. “My first priority is to ordinate new, young priests who have grown up here in Sweden,” he said.

The Coptic Orthodox Church in southern Stockholm has a similar approach. Nermin Sourial-Bassilious has been responsible for the church's Sunday school for many years. When she began her mission in 2002, every age group gathered an average of 15 children. Today the figure is 30. “We are growing in numbers all the time,” she says. “The last three years, many new people from Egypt have arrived.”

The children begin their lesson with chants and songs in Arabic. But when it is time for Bible teaching the young people switch to Swedish. Their Children's Bible workbook is in Swedish.

“We change between Swedish and Arabic,” says Nermin Sourial-Bassilious. “It is just as at home in many of these families. If the parents are good enough to speak Swedish, they also use Swedish at home, but some do not want to teach their children Swedish with an accent so they rather speak Arabic.”

The Serbian Orthodox Church in Southwestern Stockholm is also a growing church. But they have chosen a different tactic, using only Serbian and Church Slavonic languages. “We will continue in the same way,” says Dušan Rakovi, who is also the episcopal vicar for the diocese in Scandinavian.

Church Slavonic is also the main language in the Transfiguration of the Russian Orthodox Church in Stockholm. But once every month a morning service is celebrated in Swedish. In addition, the township now has both discussion groups in Russian and Swedish.

“The Swedish-language morning service was a great and important change that we made 34 years ago. Some thought that some would protest, but that did not happen. The change was accepted unexpectedly positive,” says Reverend Angel Velitchkov, who also says that the church is crammed every Sunday no matter which language is used.

Let us return to St. Mark's Syrian Orthodox Church in Linköping where Joseph Togan is now a priest. The church has, for years, been looking for a new venue. Now they have bought a plot of land from the municipality where they plan to build a new church.

The church is growing. Every week, new refugees from Syria come to Linköping and many of them are looking for a church. “As more and more refugees come, we need more space,” explains Chairman Murat Posluk. “Since the spring of 2015, one family per week on average has come to us. It's fun, but also requires us to receive them.”

The congregation gathers people with different linguistic backgrounds. In addition to Swedish, Syriac, Kurdish, Turkish and Arabic are spoken. From 2015, however, only Swedish and Syrian are used in church services.

“We cannot wait for everyone to learn Swedish. Many in the congregation have been waiting for 40 years for the change that we have implemented,” Mr. Posluk said. “Those newcomers will feel frustrated in worship services when we use the Swedish language, but gradually they begin to understand.”


Johannes Ottestig and Inger Alestig are reporters for the Swedish newspaper, Dagen, where some of this reporting appeared in Swedish. They are also members of The Media Project, a global network of journalists who write about the role of religion in public life.

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