Churches easing Iraqi Christian resettlement in Sweden

|PIC1|In Sweden, churches play a leading role in the resettlement of Iraqi Christians, providing a bridge to the new culture while connecting this persecuted group to its past.

Newly arrived Iraqi Christians in Sweden, which has taken in the most Iraqi Christian refugees in Europe - depend on churches to help them navigate the legal process and bring together the Iraqi Christian community.

Speaking to Agence France-Presse, Isam Kalka, an Iraqi who moved to Sweden in 1991, said, "When they come to Sweden, the first thing many Christian Iraqis do is go to the church.

"Some do it because they are strong believers, but also because they want to meet other people, get help in dealing with the Swedish administration, understand society, and find work."

Kalka, who has ties to the large Christian Iraqi community south of Stockholm, noted, "The church has a role to play beyond the spiritual one: to integrate people in society."

There are 30,000 Iraqi Christians in Sweden out of a total of 70,000 in Europe, according to the European Syriac Union. And last year, Sweden took in the most Iraqi refugees in Europe.

Soedertaelje - a small town with a large Iraqi Christian community - took in some 4,000 Iraqi refugees in 2006 and 2007. It expects to receive another 1,000 in 2008, according to AFP.

Benyamin Atas, the Turkish Archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Soedertaelje, highlighted that the church "is the only thing they know" when they first arrive in Sweden.

"When they need something, some advice, they turn to the church" where the doors are almost always open, Atas said.

But much of the church help comes from individuals rather than an organised church group.

Johannes Chaldean Church in Soedertaelje, which has no formal refugee programme, is said to actively support newly arrived Iraqi Christians through informal and spontaneous assistance from members.

Besides connecting Iraqi Christians with Sweden, the church is the key institution in helping Iraqi Christians stay connected to their past. The refugees use the church as the foundation for their social network where they discuss current events in Iraq as well as their concerns for remaining relatives.

"My family has the same problems as all Christians. They don't have a good life over there," said Nabil Radif, who attends the Syriac Orthodox Sankt Mikael's Church in Soedertaelje.

"They keep wondering when they're going to die," said the Iraqi engineer who has lived in Sweden since 1992. He regularly calls family members in Iraq to provide support.

There were some 1.2 million Christians in Iraq prior to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Now there are only about 600,000 remaining in the country.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has sounded the alarm on the grossly disproportionate percentage of Christians fleeing the country. According to the UNHCR, nearly half of the refugees exiting Iraq are Christians, even though this religious group composes less than five per cent of the country's population.