By Dale Gavlak
NORRKÖPING, Sweden — While chatting with a young Syrian student over coffee in church, Joumana expressed her frustration with one aspect of Swedish society — its secularism.
The 21-year-old and her family fled Damascus to the safety of this leafy city, about 100 miles southwest of Stockholm, to escape the conflict and sectarian violence engulfing Syria more than a decade ago. . And while they appreciate the physical security their new home offers, Joumana says she struggles with ridicule and spiritual disinterest from her peers.
“They tell me, ‘Why do you believe in God, in Christianity? It’s such an old-fashioned concept,” the social work student told Catholic News Service. “When I think about the future, I don’t want to raise a family in an atheist culture. So, with about twenty other people at the university, I decided to meet each week on campus for a time of prayer and a Bible study in order to encourage each other in our Christian faith.
Bishop Saad Sirop Hanna, Apostolic Visitor for Chaldean Catholics in Europe, said he understands the concerns of Arab Christians currently sheltering in Europe. He warns that their rich spiritual heritage from the Eastern churches and that of their Chaldean and Assyrian traditions are “in danger”, and these must be preserved and encouraged in their adopted countries.
“I want to say to my people here in Sweden and to Chaldeans all over the world to stay true to our faith and our traditions as Chaldeans. We must be proud of our traditions. We have so many beautiful things: the liturgy, our spirituality, fathers of faith in the Chaldean Church. We must contribute to the Catholic faith and be witnesses of our faith in our society,” Bishop Hanna told CNS by phone from his base in the Swedish town of Södertälje, about 30 km southwest of Stockholm.
Bishop Hanna is from Iraq and trained as an aeronautical engineer before entering the priesthood. He continued his studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and obtained a doctorate. in philosophy in 2008. But two years before obtaining his doctorate, he was kidnapped by militants in Baghdad while celebrating mass. For 28 days he was tortured in an effort to force him to renounce Christ, but he said it was his faith that helped him hold on until his release.
He now leads a large and distant flock of some 100,000 Chaldean Catholics in 10 countries in Europe, where the largest Chaldean communities are in Sweden, Germany and France, while the smallest are in the Netherlands, in Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and other Scandinavian countries. countries. Sweden has the largest number, with up to 35,000 Chaldean Catholics living in 12 cities, including Norrköping.
Bishop Hanna explained the dilemma that Eastern Christians face in Europe.
“There is a big difference in the cultural and social views of our people who come from the Middle East and from these Eastern churches to these secular societies,” he said, adding that there is also a big difference. in the “mentality, the way of solving problems and how religious values are applied in our social life.
“So many families suffer because they are used to exercising and publicly declaring their faith in their home country, but when they come here, we don’t talk about religion, we can’t talk about God at school or in the street”, he said of what theologians have called “post-Christian Europe”.
Bishop Hanna said that often in European societies the aim is for people to live on an equal footing and for religion to be seen as a private and personal matter. But what happens when a Christian is questioned about who he is and what he believes, he asked. He said that in schools or other social spaces, Arab Christians may be asked by authorities “not to talk about Jesus or their faith because it is not important.”
“So education and faith formation are very difficult here. For many children or young people, the only place where they can speak or exercise their faith and be educated in it is in church or at home,” he said. The challenge for some families is the long school or work hours that sometimes make it difficult to attend church. “But we try to do our best to reach these children and young people, communicating with the new generation and educating them in their faith.”
Another difficulty Chaldean Catholics face is the lack of a specific diocese for the community as well as stable church meeting places and worship times, including Mass times.
There is only one dedicated Chaldean Catholic church in Sweden, the Chaldean Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary in Södertälje.
“It’s the first church, but we have 12 different centers all over Sweden for Chaldeans without a church. We borrow from other churches to celebrate Mass,” but the times available for such gatherings can make attendance difficult for Chaldean Catholics.
Still, Bishop Hanna commends local Catholic dioceses and Swedish Cardinal Anders Arborelius for their help. “The cardinal here is very open and very good with the Chaldean Church and the other Catholics of the Eastern Churches. And the dioceses are trying. But there are issues we have to deal with,” he said.
For this reason, Bishop Hanna urges the creation of a diocese dedicated to Chaldean Catholics.
“I would like to see a diocese where we can exercise our faith and properly follow our people. The nature of the faith that people in the Middle East carry in their hearts is quite different from here in the way of living that faith and trying to transmit that faith to others,” Bishop Hanna explained.
“Although we need to learn so much from the local dioceses, we also need a suitable place to follow our people, to try to embrace them again inside the church. But we are limited within the resources currently available,” he said.