Cardinal Arborelius on Swedish riots and Ukraine war


In a wide-ranging interview with Vatican News, the Bishop of Stockholm reacts to widespread riots over planned Quran burnings in Sweden, and discusses the war in Ukraine and its impact on the Scandinavian country.

By Deborah Castellano Lubov

Cardinal Anders Arborelius, Bishop of Stockholm, grants a wide-ranging interview to Vatican News, and decries the violent riots in Sweden, as well as the blatant acts of religious intolerance which provoked the unrest.

More than 40 people have been arrested, and some have been injured, after violent clashes in Sweden between police and angry people at plans by a far-right group to burn copies of the Quran, Islam’s holiest book.

The Bishop of Sweden’s only Diocese acknowledges there exist “anti-religious feelings” within the Swedish population, and recalls occasions where statues of Mary were vandalized or destroyed.

In the interview, he also tells Deborah Castellano Lubov about the war in Ukraine, whether Sweden is living in a climate of fear, and what impact it has had on the Nordic nation.

He speaks of the country’s welcome to some 40,000 Ukrainians forced to flee, but laments the tragic cases when refugees are abused and mistreated, including Ukrainian women who have been forced into prostitution.

The Cardinal, whom Pope Francis entrusted to be an Apostolic Visitor to the German Archdiocese of Cologne to examine handling of sexual abuse cases, also reflects on the Church’s commitment to protect minors, especially in light of the Pope’s decision to incorporate the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors into the Vatican’s Congregation, which will this June become the ‘Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.’

Cardinal Arborelius also expresses what is his personal wish and prayer this Easter Season, in the following full transcript of the interview:

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Q: International media are reporting on the violence and riots across Sweden sparked by a far-right group’s plan to burn copies of the Quran. Your Eminence, could you give us your reaction to these events?

Cardinal Anders Arborelius: Yes. In Sweden, during the Easter period, we had some very difficult riots in some areas of Stockholm and the police were attacked by young people who protested against the demonstration of an extremist politician from Denmark who wanted to burn the Quran. In several places of Sweden, we had these riots. In one place, though this was not going through because people had prepared the atmosphere, the different faith communities and others had helped to calm down the situation. And the Lutheran minister even tolled the bells when this demonstration started.

But in other areas, it was a very violent Easter. That makes it clear that Sweden has not been able to cope with the segregation, that in some areas there are nearly only foreigners with low income, without work, with criminality. So, for our society, it’s really important to do something to fight against this segregation.

File photo of Cardinal Anders Arborelius

File photo of Cardinal Anders Arborelius

Q: How would you describe the coexistence of and respect for other religions in Sweden?

Well, we see that Sweden is a very secular country, and the authorities somehow do not realize that many of the immigrants have strong religious beliefs. And for them, it’s a sign of hatred. For instance, when they burn the Quran.

Actually, we have also had cases where statues of Our Lady have been vandalized or destroyed. I would say there are anti-religious feelings [within] the Swedish population. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should attack the police. But we have to understand the background that people feel they are outside of society, and that no one respects them. Then, at some point, there will be violence in our suburbs.

I think it’s very important in Sweden to start a deeper dialogue and at the same time we see, for instance, that some of the religious parties now want to prohibit confessional schools. So that’s also a sign that is troubling us today.

Q: How has the war in Ukraine affected Sweden and the Church in Sweden, also from the perspective of refugees? The Catholic Church in Sweden is greatly, or rather almost entirely, composed of immigrants, how has and will this war potentially affect that dynamic?

Sweden has been able to receive a good number of Ukrainian refugees. The last number I heard of was about 40,000. And they are spread all over the country. And in our diocese, we have two Ukrainian priests of the Byzantine rite. So, they have been very active trying to reach out to the people and organize it.

On Easter morning, we had Ukrainian service … It was completely packed with faithful. Most of the Ukrainians are Orthodox, though, and it has been more difficult for the Orthodox to find priests to take care of them. We see that, in general, the Swedish population is very open to this group of people. I was a bit surprised because recently we have seen that there is not so much openness and solidarity for refugees as a rule. But the war in Ukraine has somehow made a difference for Swedes in general, and we see that many private families also receive Ukrainians in their houses and apartments.

So up to now, I say people in general are very open. And of course, in parishes we try to do what we can in order to help. Caritas has been very active and has been warned about trafficking because unfortunately we see that some of the Ukrainian women have been forced into prostitution. So, there is a danger that there will also be those tragic cases when refugees are abused and ill-treated.

Q: According to polls, a growing majority of Swedes back joining NATO. In your opinion, is there a climate of fear in Sweden at this time? What is contributing to it?

Of course, Sweden is now reflecting upon its political situation in terms of defense. And we see that after the attack on Ukraine, the authorities and many people in Sweden are a bit worried. Our possibility to defend our country is discussed. So, there is a new political situation inside the country. And also, with regard to the NATO, for instance, Finland and Sweden are now discussing the possibility of entering the NATO alliance. But we still don’t know what will happen. And of course, from Russia, there are signs that they are worried.

So, it’s a situation of insecurity and many questions are put on the table now in society, and also for the faith communities, it’s real difficult to see how we should act in this situation. Of course, we want to receive those in need, but we know if too many people come here, the situation is not so easy to integrate them. And that’s what we’ve seen now in our suburbs, that migration has to be followed by very, very important integration, and that’s been missing.

So, I think there are some very urgent questions for the Swedish society to cope with in the near future. We also hope that the religions, the faith communities will be more listened to in our secularized country. And there are signs that also the authorities begin to realize that you have to take into consideration that many of those people come here, they have a deep faith, they are religious, and they can feel a lack of respect when they come to this secular country.

There are many important questions for all of us in Sweden in the future to cope with, but we hope and pray that Sweden will still be a tolerant, open and good society for most of our citizens.

Q: What importance do you give to Pope Francis’ appeals for peace in Ukraine, and an Easter truce in Ukraine, remembering as well that the Orthodox Churches will be celebrating this coming Sunday?

It would be a prophetic sign if the Holy Father could go to Kyiv. On the other hand, we know that Russia would be very annoyed, very angry. So, I could understand that for the Holy Father it is not easy to discern how to act, what to do, and what to say.

But we know that the Pope is very close to all those who suffer from the war. And at the same time, I think he is one of the few people in the world who could have some impact on Patriarch Kirill who has taken this position in favor of the war.

So, we pray for the Holy Father that he will receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to bring about reconciliation and peace for Ukraine.

Q: If I may turn to a different topic, you were entrusted by the Pope to be an Apostolic Visitor, where you less than a year ago examined the Archdiocese of Cologne’s handling of accusations of clerical sexual abuse cases. In the meantime, the Vatican has adopted further measures to protect minors in Canon Law and incorporating the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors into the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. What do you see as the importance of this move, and of recent reforms enacted by the Pope and Church to help minors? What also do you see as being necessary?

This is a very, very important and huge complex of questions. And we know that for the Church all over the world, this is a time of repentance, and a time of new beginnings. And of course, all over the world, we know, we have this problem, but it’s still related to the culture and context of the societies. That means that in some countries, the Church has been able to do a lot in order to prevent and take care of all these cases and give the victims the help and respect they need. But still in other countries, it hasn’t happened so much.

I know from the Dicastery, this is maybe the main challenge: to help the Church in so many countries to do the same thing. At first, we recognize that is a problem and we have to do everything in order to put things right, and, at the same time, help them to start the process. I think that’s a very, very vast area for the Dicastery. Of course, we need general rules, but we also need to study the situation in different parts of the world, because we know that in some parts of the world, there is still this culture of silence, and even to deny that the problem is there. I wish and hope that the Dicastery will find the possibility to help the Church worldwide to really take this into consideration and do something about it.

But we all know it is a painful process. It takes time, but we are very grateful that Pope Francis, just as his predecessor, is so eager to do something about it and to put the victims in front because we know how hard it is to suffer this and so much has to be done . I have hope, but I do know it will be a long and painful process for many local Churches around the world before they can cope with the situation.

Q: Returning to Easter, what are your wishes and prayers this Easter Season?

During this Easter Season, I think we have to promote the virtue of hope. It is so necessary for the Church in a time of war and conflict and interior problems we cope with, to really have this deep faith and hope in the Risen Lord, that He is alive in His Church, that He helps us, that He has conquered the powers of evil, and to try to really help people rediscover the Paschal message. We need it more than ever.

And, of course, in all our Churches, that is what we try to do. That’s what is so necessary to help people and to strengthen their faith in the Risen Lord, and to have hope even if they live in difficult circumstances.

I am so full of admiration for the Ukrainians that I have met. I can still see their faces when they came to the Easter Mass. Many faces were sorrowful, but by the end of the Mass you could also see them smiling and see that the Paschal joy meant something to them.



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