God’s House: Coexisting in Sweden
Even as the world is still reeling after last Friday’s attacks in Norway by a 32-year-old gunman who said he wanted to “save Europe from Muslim takeover,” a house of worship for Lutheran, Muslims and Roman Catholics is being built in Nacka in the parish of Fisksätra south of Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. “God’s House” is the name of an endeavor that is attempting to “tackle sectarianism,” says Swedish-English newspaper The Local.
Henrik Larsson, a pastor with the Church of Sweden in Nacka and project manager for the initiative, says that God’s House will be the first building to house a church and a mosque since the Umayyad Mosque was built in Damascus in the 600s. The idea for the project arose a few years ago as a “natural extension of the growing cooperation” among the Church of Sweden, St. Konrad’s Catholic Church in Nacka, and the Muslim Association in Nacka (Muslimska föreningen i Nacka). According to Larsson:
In 2004, the local schools came to us and asked us for help and advice in how to teach children about religious tolerance and address any problems, and the idea to do something together started to take form as we thought, “Could we do something?”
After members of the far-right Social Democrat party who campaigned on an openly anti-immigration and anti-Muslim platform won seats in Sweden’s Parliament for the first time in 2010, Church of Sweden Bishop Bengt Wadensjö wrote in a letter to the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet:
In Nacka we do not think that Muslims or immigrants should be seen as a threat, as suggested by Jimmie Åkesson [leader of the Social Democrats'. The idea is to demonstrate how people can get along together regardless of culture, language or faith.
While Swedish Democrat Erik Hellsborn wrote on his blog that the attacks in Oslo and Utøya are the result of "mass immigration" and "Islamization," Åkesson and other right-wing groups in Europe have condemned the attacks.
The Nacka project got underway in 2009 with renovations between a building owned by the Church of Sweden that rented space to the Catholic Church. According to plans for the project -- which still requires funding but is projected to be finished by 2014-- a mosque will be built on land beside the current building with a communal foyer to connect them. A long-term hope is to start a youth club and children's center. A drawing of what God's House will look like can be see at Rue89 which notes that similar projects have been started in the UK and in Berlin among Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Said Imam Awad Olwan of the Muslim Association in Nacka:
"Religion has been used in such a negative way in history so this is a way of us showing it can be put in a positive light as well....
"It was easy to agree to [the project], because we have lived and worked side by side for over 20 years,” he explains.
“There are actually not so many differences between our religions, we do after all believe in one God, our children attend the same schools, and we all share similar local issues.”
Larsson notes that “God’s House” has received a lot of publicity since the project was announced, both positive and negative, the latter because, as he says, “… on both sides, we have such a strong picture of each other.”
Hopefully “God’s House” might inspire others to attempt similar projects in which those from different faiths can worship and be together.
I teach Latin, ancient Greek and Classics at a small Jesuit college in Jersey City, which is just across from the site where the World Trade Center once stood. Our students are mostly from the surrounding area in Hudson County and reflect its demographics as many are Latino/a, Pakistani, Indian, Egyptian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Polish, Irish, Kenyan, Ghanan and many other ethnicities. Muslims, Catholics, Baptists and agnostics all have class together and, while things aren’t perfect, we all genuinely take pride in being in a community together.
Coexistence is possible and one house of worship in Sweden is a quiet emblem that we can get along.
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Photo by Zé.Valdi