‘God’s House’ being built in suburban Stockholm

As religious tensions continue to cause friction in Sweden and elsewhere, Lutherans, Catholics, and Muslims in a small Stockholm suburb have come together to present a new model for religious tolerance, The Local's Geoff Mortimore discovers.

'God's House' being built in suburban Stockholm

On the other side of the Atlantic, an emotional debate rages about the suitability of building a mosque near the Ground Zero site in New York City.

At the same time, the recent political upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East has raised concerns in some quarters that religious fundamentalism may fill the void.

Meanwhile in the parish of Fisksätra, Nacka, a few kilometres south of Stockholm, Muslims, Lutherans and Roman Catholics are joining forces in a unique project attempting to tackle sectarianism by bringing the three groups together under a single roof.

“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,” Imam Awad Olwan of the Muslim Association in Nacka (Muslimska föreningen i Nacka) explains.

According to Henrik Larsson, a pastor with the Church of Sweden in Nacka and project manager for the initiative, the new building would be the only place of worship of its type in the world and the first time that a mosque and a church have been part of the same building since the Umayyad Mosque was built in Damascus in the 600s.

“This is something unique in the world,” he says.

The idea for what has been termed “God’s House” to be built in Fisksätra, near Saltsjöbaden, began to take shape a few years ago as a natural extension of the growing cooperation between the Church of Sweden, St. Konrad’s Catholic Church in Nacka, and the Muslim Association.

“No one really knows how the idea came about, but the three organisations have been working closely together since the 1960s,” Larsson explains.

“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?'”

The question of religious tolerance in Sweden was brought into sharp relief last autumn after the far-right Sweden Democrats won seats in the Swedish parliament for the first time.

The party campaigned on an openly anti-immigration platform, with advertisements and speeches which singled out Muslim immigrants in particular.

In the wake of the Sweden Democrats’ electoral success, Bishop Bengt Wadensjö of the Church of Sweden wrote an open letter about the Nacka project to the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) newspaper taking issue with party leader Jimmie Åkesson’s views on immigrations and Muslims.

“We saw that fear of Islam gained a profile with the Sweden Democrats winning parliamentary seats, so I wanted to convey a completely different picture of Sweden,” wrote Wadensjö.

“In Nacka we do not think that Muslims or immigrants should be seen as a threat, as suggested by Jimmie Åkesson. The idea is to demonstrate how people can get along together regardless of culture, language or faith.”

First unveiled in 2009, plans for the project include major renovations to the current building which is owned by the Church of Sweden but which also has space rented by the Catholic Church.

After completion of the first phase of the project, which includes a facelift for Church of Sweden facilities and the expansion of space available for the Catholic Church, a mosque will also be built on land adjacent to the current structure.

The Christian and Muslim houses of worship will then be connected by a communal foyer.

In the longer term it is hoped that together they can also create a youth club and children’s centre together.

The new church will be the culmination of years of hard work put in by leaders from organisations representing Lutherans, Muslims, and Catholics who have sought to build a new place of worship together.

Imam Olwan believes the project is the ideal way to carry on the longstanding cooperation between the three parties.

“It was easy to agree to it, 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.”

Not surprisingly, when news began to spread about the church, it received plenty of attention. Larsson says that although he and others involved in the project were expecting a degree of opposition, they have been generally pleased with the response.

“We knew there would be a lot of interest in this and there has been extensive media coverage,” he says

Larsson admits, however that he has received a “fair amount” of negative reaction to the project.

“A lot of it is because, on both sides, we have such a strong picture of each other,” he explains.

“This is at times based on historically bad experiences of each other and much of it could be put down to suspicion these days about Islam. The encouraging thing is that the positive reaction has so far outweighed the negative.”

There is plenty of work still to be done, however, before “God’s House” becomes a reality.

The first stage of the rebuilding work, to be done later this year, will see the shared Catholic and Church of Sweden prayer room completed.

The planning application for the mosque, to be built on land purchased from the Church of Sweden, has been sent to the local authorities and Larsson is hoping for a decision later this year. Therefore it is likely to be at least two more years before the extension is built.

Nevertheless, Olwan of the Muslim Association is optimistic about the power of the project to sway perceptions.

“The idea of Gods House is a big, radical step, but we feel it is a highly symbolic way of showing that we wish to create something together,” he says.

Olwan says he understands that the project won’t necessarily change everyone’s negative attitudes toward other religions, nor does it mean that the groups “have to agree on everything”.

“We just want to bring people together. This is a chance for us to do something of great meaning,” he says.

Presuming the plans are approved, there will another round of financing and planning, which has led to doubts from some that the project will be completed.

And in another symbolic gesture, the Muslim Association is looking to break from tradition by trying to find financing closer to home.

“Generally, when new mosques are built, money tends to come from wealthy donors abroad, but we have decided to try and do it differently and raise money locally instead,” he explains.

“We feel we are all Swedish citizens and we will be looking to work together in this respect as well, seeing it as more proof of how we can all cooperate.”

Larsson says the groups involved with the project remain hopeful that the money necessary can be raised both within Sweden as well as elsewhere in Europe if necessary.

”We believe that the mosque will be ready by 2014,” says Larsson, adding that he hopes the project becomes a model that can be followed elsewhere.

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‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.