Society diversity

A world of neighbors offers a vision of the welcoming society

Church of Sweden hosts interfaith summit showcasing work supporting migrants and creating inclusive societies

(LWI) – “Keeping Our Humanity” is the theme of an online interfaith summit to be held from February 20-24, organized by the European Interfaith Network “A World of Neighbors” (AWoN). Initiated by the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden, Antje Jackelén, the network seeks to strengthen relationships between faith-based actors working with and for migrants, refugees and other people on the move.

As Director of the “A World of Neighbours” programme, Anna Hjälm is responsible for coordinating the summit, which includes a packed program of prayers and workshops, lectures and seminars, films, music and a interfaith meeting place for young people. Speakers include religious and civic leaders, politicians, lawyers, entrepreneurs, journalists, grassroots activists, as well as many migrants and refugees sharing their own expertise and personal experiences.

Hjälm is inspired and energized in her work by the dedication and commitment of network members: “They may not make the headlines, but they are changing the world they are in, every day, helping us stay a welcoming society,” she says. The summit, she continues, “will showcase work underway in different countries, from supporting those caught up in the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, to the refugee-led Wave of Hope educational initiative on the Greek island of Lesbos. ”

Interfaith is the new normal

The director of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Program for Public Theology and Interfaith Relations, Reverend Dr. Sivin Kit, is among the participants at the summit. He will moderate a discussion on the shrinking spaces for religion in society with Bishop Jackelén, Executive Director of the World Jewish Congress Claudio Epelman and Emin Poljarevic, Lecturer in Islamic Theology and Philosophy at Uppsala University. Kit describes the summit as “the culmination of an exceptional initiative amplifying the contribution of practitioners showing concrete ways to make Europe an inclusive and welcoming society”.

Two women at the “Café Nyfiket” (Café Curiosity), a collaborative project between the Church of Sweden and other local civil society actors in the city of Skövde, Sweden. Photo: Magnus Aronson

The network was born out of the 2015 migration crisis, when around 1.3 million people, mostly from Syria but also Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis, Nigerians and Eritreans, came to seek asylum on European shores – the highest number in a single year since World War II. War. Research by the Church of Sweden found that 80% of all parishes in the country were involved in some form of short- or long-term support and reception activities for asylum seekers.

“Most of these migrants were not Christians,” notes Hjälm, “and very few, if any, were Lutherans, so within a few years interfaith encounters spread across the country from a way we have never seen before”. What began as “a diaconal work of churches to welcome the foreigner”, she explains, quickly evolved into a shared way of life where “interreligious is the new norm”. Observing the wealth of knowledge and resources developed locally, Bishop Jackelén, in 2018, established the network as a way to reach and connect these interfaith practitioners in Sweden and beyond.

Mutually transformative encounters

Hjälm and a former close adviser to the archbishop, Presbyterian pastor Dirk Ficca of Chicago who died last December, traveled to eleven countries, meeting with 150 practitioners of different faiths and professions. In each location, Hjälm recalls, they discovered people “engaged in mutually transformative encounters with refugees and migrants, people who offered practical solutions to the challenges of our time”. The network works “from the bottom up”, she says, engaging those who have “one foot in the basic realities of people’s lives on the move and the other in a wider local context, where they can help influence decision makers and shape refugee policies.

There have been many challenges over the past five years, including the COVID-19 outbreak which broke out in Sweden just two weeks after a major international network meeting in Malmö in February 2020. All planned activities have been suspended as members have tried to find ways to support migrants and their families, who are often among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Another international meet scheduled for last December in Amsterdam was canceled as cases of the Omicron variant hit a new peak.

Meeting someone from a different religion can change your mindset and make you see that the lines between “us and them” are not where you think they are.

Anna Hjalm, Program Director for A World of Neighbors

Other challenges, notes Hjälm, came from “the growth in Sweden and other European countries of right-wing parties” which also influenced people on the benches. Opposition to welcoming work from abroad, according to Hjälm, is driven by concerns about the lack of economic and human resources within host communities, as well as fear of extremists among newcomers. “I try to listen to these fears, but I also try to confront them, including from a Christian point of view,” she says. “We shouldn’t be naive that there will be cases of broken trust. But one of the goals is to help people understand that when you meet someone of a different religion, that meeting can change your mindset and make you see that the lines of demarcation between “us and them “are not where you think they are.

    Magnus Aronson

Activities organized by the interfaith consortium “Goda grannar” (good neighbours) in Stockholm. Photo: Tobias Andersson

Hjälm, originally a researcher in social and economic geography, spent three years with the World Council of Churches in Jerusalem, before returning to Uppsala to work on interfaith issues at the international department of the Church of Sweden. She will return to Jerusalem in August to lead the Swedish Theological Institute there. With his departure and the retirement of Bishop Jackelén in the fall, the “A World of Neighbours” network plans to move from a Church of Sweden initiative to shared ownership by different stakeholders.

In the meantime, Hjälm hopes that as wide an audience as possible will take part in the Neighbors Week summit which opens on Sunday 20 February. The following days, February 21 and 23, LWF, with its partner Interdiac (International Academy of Diakonia and Social Action of Central and Eastern Europe) will co-host two seminars on how Lutheran churches in Europe are applying new approaches to diaconal work in the midst of growing diversity and inequality.

LWF Reverend Sivin Kit says, “The theme of the summit reminds us of the humanity of all who seek to be more than a refugee – they also desire to call the new host country their home! “As we are inspired to respond courageously, let us connect with our own humanity alongside partners of different faiths and backgrounds. Together, faith actors and policy makers need renewed hope, as well as a commitment to sustainable ways forward.

LWF/P. Coupling

Summit program

A World of Neighbors is part of the steering group of the international conference “Welcoming the Stanger, Shaping the Future” to be held on June 20-21, 2022 in Geneva, organized by the Lutheran World Federation, Islamic Relief Worldwide and HIAS.