By Dale Gavlak
NORRKÖPING, Sweden — Chatting with a young Syrian university student during the church coffee hour, Joumana expressed frustration with an aspect of Swedish society — its secularism.
The 21-year-old and her family fled Damascus for the safety of this leafy city, some 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 homeland offers, Joumana says she struggles with the ridicule and lack of spiritual interest by her peers.
“They tell me, ‘Why do you believe in God, in Christianity? That’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 a godless culture. So, I along with some 20 others at university, have decided to meet weekly on campus for a prayer time and Bible study to encourage each other in our Christian faith.”
Bishop Saad Sirop Hanna, the apostolic visitor for Chaldean Catholics in Europe, said he understands the concerns of Arab Christians now sheltering in Europe. He warns that their rich spiritual heritage of the Eastern churches and that of their Chaldean and Assyrian traditions are “in danger,” and these must be preserved and fostered in their adopted home countries.
“I want to tell my people here in Sweden and Chaldeans everywhere to hold firm to our faith and traditions as Chaldeans. We have to be proud of our traditions. We have so many beautiful things: the liturgy, our spirituality, the fathers of faith in the Chaldean Church. We have to 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 city of Södertälje, about 19 miles southwest of Stockholm.
Bishop Hanna hails 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 Ph.D. in philosophy in 2008. But two years before earning his doctorate, he was abducted by militants in Baghdad while celebrating Mass. For 28 days, he was tortured in a bid to force him to renounce Christ, but he said it was his faith that helped him hold on until his release.
He now shepherds a large and far-flung flock of some 100,000 Chaldean Catholics in 10 countries throughout Europe, where the biggest Chaldean communities are found in Sweden, Germany and France, while smaller ones are in Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and other Scandinavian 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 find in Europe.
“There is a big difference in the cultural and social views for our people who come from the Middle East and from these Oriental churches to these secular societies,” he said, adding that there is also a big difference in the “mentality, the way of addressing issues, and how religious values are applied in our social life.”
“So many families are suffering from this because they are used to exercising and declaring publicly their faith in their countries of origin, but when they come here there is no talk of religion, you cannot talk about God in school or in the street,” he said of what theologians have termed “post-Christian Europe.”
Bishop Hanna said often in European societies, the aim is to have people live as equals and for religion to be considered as a private and personal matter. But what happens when a Christian is asked about who they are and what they believe, he asked. He said at schools or in other social spaces, Arab Christians may be asked by those in authority “not to speak about Jesus or their faith because it is not important.”
“So, the education and formation of faith is very difficult here. For many children or youth, the only place where they can talk or exercise their faith and be educated in it is in the church or at home,” he said. The challenge for some families is the long hours of school or work that make it difficult at times to attend church. “But we trying to do our best to reach these children and young people, communicating with the new generation and educating them in their faith.”
Another difficulty that Chaldean Catholics face is the lack of a specific diocese for the community as well as stable church meeting places and hours of worship, including Mass times.
There is only one dedicated Chaldean Catholic church in Sweden, the Virgin Mary Chaldean Catholic church in Södertälje.
“This is the first church, but we have 12 different centers throughout Sweden for Chaldeans without churches. We borrow other churches to celebrate the Mass,” but the times available for such gatherings can make attending hard for the Chaldean Catholics.
Still, Bishop Hanna praises the local Catholic dioceses and Swedish Cardinal Anders Arborelius for their assistance. “The cardinal here is very open and very good with the Chaldean church and the other Catholics from Oriental churches. And the dioceses are trying. But there are issues that we have to deal with,” he said.
For this reason, Bishop Hanna is urging for the creation of a diocese dedicated to Chaldean Catholics.
“I would like to see a diocese where we can exercise our faith and follow our people correctly. The nature of faith that people from the Middle East carry in their hearts is quite different from here in the way of living out that faith and trying to transmit that faith to others,” Bishop Hanna explained.
“While we need to learn from the local dioceses so many things, we also need a place in a proper way to follow our people, to try to embrace them again inside the church. But we are limited in the resources currently available,” he said.
Bishop Saad Sirop Hanna and his Chaldean flock have challenging missions ahead of them. Keeping their rich faith alive and evangelizing their hosts with doses of the Good News are win-win situations.
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