A Syrian priest serving Arabic-speaking Christians in Sweden on the unique challenges faced by that community
Deborah Castellano Lubov
A refugee woman walks through the caravan park in Frankfurt, Germany, Feb. 12. (CNS photo/Alexander Heinl, EPA)

Ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to Sweden in late October, Catholic World Report sat down with Syrian missionary priest Father Antoine Arab in Landskrona. It is widely known that Sweden has welcomed many immigrants from the Middle East; our topic for discussion was the situation of those immigrants who share our Christian faith.

Father Antoine Arab was born in 1962 in Aleppo, Syria, and ordained there in 1990. He moved to Sweden 13 years ago, where he serves the region of Scåne’s Arabic-speaking Catholic community.

In 2003, the Oriental Catholic Mission in Skåne (South Sweden) was established by the Catholic Diocese of Stockholm. The mission exists to serve Christians who come from countries in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Holy Land, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey) and who belong to different churches (Maronite, Melkite, Chaldean, Armenian, Coptic and Syriac). The mission operates under the authority of the Stockholm Catholic diocese, which is led by Bishop Anders Arborelius.

Father Arab is responsible for the mission and conducts all pastoral services for its members in Skåne—in particular, in the cities of Malmö, Lund, Helsingborg, and Landskrona. All Church services are celebrated in the Arabic and Swedish languages. He travels to the various parishes in the region to offer spiritual guidance to these Christians.

CWR: Who are the Catholic Arabic speakers in Sweden? Where do they come from?

Father Antoine Arab: They come mostly from the Middle East countries, first of all Iraq—we have many Iraqi people—then many Syrians, and many others from Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, and Turkey…. Many from Lebanon came during the late 1980s, especially around the civil war in 1989, when Syrian troops invaded Lebanon. So, usually the Catholics who we find now in Sweden are from these afflicted zones, who have fled from situations of war and religious persecution. [From] Syria, especially, we see many fleeing from ISIS, or Daesh, as we can call it.

CWR: Can you speak about how Sweden is welcoming immigrants?

Father Arab: Yes, Sweden has a long tradition of welcoming refugees…today, the Syrians, in the past, Chileans. In the 1970s, Sweden welcomed more Chilean people because of the political situation during the dictatorship of Pinochet, then from Kosovo, from Serbia…. Sweden opened the doors to everyone without differentiating among countries or religions, or by political ideas. Swedish people, from this point of view, are very welcoming people.

CWR: In Europe now, there is a big immigration crisis. In your opinion, is the welcoming possible? And under which conditions?

Father Arab: This is a very difficult discussion or debate, because, as the politicians say, it’s not possible to accept everyone, to accept millions of people from these countries. You know, European countries have different problems in receiving immigrants. Some countries push them out. Pope Francis calls very strongly on politicians to accept those immigrants who arrive out of necessity, not by choice—those who didn’t leave their country just because they preferred to, but more or less were forced to leave because of war, or religious or political persecution, or for other reasons. The European community has to keep in mind this fact: they are immigrants not as a luxury, but because they have no choice to be otherwise.

CWR: But is there a distinction between those who escape from war or persecution and those who are immigrants in order to better their condition? This welcome is oriented toward the former, correct?

Father Arab: When referring to this welcome that happens or is needed, we speak about those who had to leave, who had no other choice.

CWR: What do the members of your Arabic-speaking Catholic community think about Pope Francis’ visit to your region?

Father Arab: [The Pope’s visit] is very important for us because it is a historical event. It is the first time a pope has come to Scania, has come to Malmö, has come to Lund. And maybe—as I tell my group—maybe never again will it happen that a pope comes to our area, to this region. So he is our guest. We are very happy and enthusiastic to see him, and to meet him. And can I show you something?

CWR: Yes, of course.

Father Arab: Our children have prepared a book for our Pope to welcome him in Sweden. Little ones who have come from the Middle East, including Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Iraq, et cetera. They’ve written little messages and made designs and drawings for him.

One touching account is of an eight-year-old named Michel from Syria, who explains that his sister and mother died in a bomb. So he asks the Pope: “How can you help me?” We see his drawing—I will translate for you. (Pointing to the images in the drawing) Here we have his dad, grandfather, and uncle, and here we see a grave site, for his mother and sister killed.

Somehow, we hope this book gets delivered to the Pope. The creation of the book [shows] how happy and enthusiastic we are. Anyway, the book will be delivered with other gifts through the Vatican embassy, and I hope that the Pope personally will see it. The Pope’s visit is a great moment that gives me courage and hope.

CWR: What does your community think of Pope Francis’ support for persecuted Christians in the Middle East?

Father Arab: They think he is doing a very, very good job for the migrants, for the Christians in the Middle East. I think certainly for Christians. But they also appreciate what he is doing even to help other religious groups. For example—when he traveled to Lesbos, and even when he took back Muslim families on the flight with him afterward. So they are very touched by his gestures, but we all know there is a limit to his political authority.

CWR: Sweden is a very secularized country, where religion, any religion, seems rarely to be viewed as important. Given this, how do these migrants manage to integrate themselves into a society which is so different from that from which they came?

Father Arab: For us, it is very difficult because there is a huge difference between our mentality and the Swedish mentality. It’s huge. But our people, first, try to learn the language very well, because it is really the key to acclimating and integrating into this culture, this society…into work, schools, universities, et cetera. And they have a lot of initiatives and a lot of activities to help them integrate into this country.

One fact is that a social life is not easy in Sweden—to communicate, to contact, to help, and essentially to have good relationships with Swedish people. This is what we lack. It is not so easy to have a good relationship with the Swedish people. Maybe in the US, I can have friendships and relationships, but here it is not so easy.

CWR: Given this, what helps? Are there certain activities that you are involved in, that help these people feel more welcome?

Father Arab: Yes, we have different social activities. We have Sunday school, for instance, for the children, to help them learn the catechesis…. We try to have events regularly to help them feel this…to have things together, to celebrate the fact that the Pope is coming.

So we celebrate the Mass, then we eat together, then we have a teaching…. We have a special reading for the children and some other activities for them. So yes, we try our best. Also we have a bulletin for our Arabic-speaking Catholics. It has side-by-side the readings, prayers, songs, etc. in Swedish and Arabic. We want these people to feel secure in the Church, [to] feel safe and comfortable here, and with each other. And then this will contribute to their happiness.

CWR: Sometimes the hierarchy in the Middle East express unhappiness about the emigration of Middle Eastern Christians. Do you feel there is a risk that the Christian communities there could disappear?

Father Arab: Yes, it is a real risk that Christianity could disappear from the Middle East. If we talk about numbers, now: in Iraq, perhaps a third of the Christians that were originally there remain. And in Syria, more or less, the same situation. In Lebanon, the numbers are decreasing also. In Palestine, Christians of all types—Catholic, Orthodox—are now just about 100,000. There are many difficulties to survive. … It’s a difficult life.

CWR: How would you describe your experience as a priest?

Father Arab: In Sweden, we have great organization in the Church. We are blessed with a great bishop. He is a great father for all of us priests and for the whole community. And from my experience in Skåne, I am very glad. It is a bit hard to explain, but it’s like the Holy Spirit is animating us, the Christians who find themselves here. It’s hard to explain, but it’s wonderful. I am very happy with this mission.

Of course there are difficulties—our people have suffered—but I always say to my people, we need to focus on the positive of everything we experience, in all whom we meet. Because there is always a positive side to a negative experience. But in doing this, we live this experience in gratitude, but really, with joy. We feel this sense of security and we are joyful.