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The Swedish Church of Plaka

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There were many clouds in the sky. The temperature was still hot enough for early October and I was walking hurriedly across the narrow streets of Plaka. Shortly before 15.00 pm I would ring the bell in the building of 18, Daidalou street. Looking up I would notice a Swedish and Finnish flag fluttering on the balcony of the first floor while at the door of the entrance I would see only a small inscription with the emblem of the official Church of Sweden — Svenska Kyrkan.

Going to the first floor, Rev’d’ Björn Kling would open the door. Coming in, I heard a mixture of Scandinavian languages while Björn is offering me a tea to start our conversation. Brigitta, who is responsible for the cafe of the Swedish Church, is giving me my brown sugar, smiling, while she is speaking her mother tongue on the phone.

Founding the Swedish Church

“The Swedish church has been established about 45 years ago and not even in Athens where we are now but in Piraeus. Originally, it was a branch of the Seamen’s Churches, part of a huge network. The thought behind it, was that all Scandinavian countries had a large number of men working in shipping, at sea. When they got to the harbor, they were all in a bad situation due to the harsh working conditions and there was no one to take care of them as their own people would do. Well, this role has come to be covered by the Swedish Church.” says Björn, sitting on the white couch.

But the time when the Swedish sailors were at sea was over and the Swedish Church had to change its role and mission. It was now there to help the Swedish truck drivers who were waiting to load and unload goods from the port of Piraeus. Due to time-consuming customs procedures, drivers waited in Piraeus for several days or weeks and the Church was there to help them and facilitate their stay.”

“Then we entered the era of the European Union and there were no customs and therefore no truck drivers. Our Church had to think very seriously about its raison d’être, its reason of existence. Why do we exist? Whom should we help?

From Piraeus to Athens

The needs were now shifted from Piraeus to the center of Athens. “There were quite a few Swedes and Scandinavians in Athens. Mainly women who married Greeks 30–40 years ago and settled here permanently. The need to find a common bond with their homeland again, to speak their language again and to pray in a church with memories from their childhood was more intense than ever.”

Based on this reasoning, the Church settled in this building 8–10 years ago. Access now is pretty easy and everyone can come. But who are they all?

“The truth is that we are a very small parish, and indeed a “poor” parish. At Easter, 60 people were in the mass, while in Sunday’s services we did not exceed 20 people. “

The average age of Swedes who are members of the Church is growing while younger generations do not come to the church.

“Our people here are growing up. Mobility impairs and diseases do not allow them to come to the church regularly. Also, many choose to return to Sweden because of the economic crisis. An even more important problem is that the descendants of these people, children and grandchildren, have nothing to do with Swedish culture and identity. Because of their daily life in Greece, they did not learn to speak Swedish and they have no contact with this country culturally, let alone religiously. “

While we are talking, I am hearing people arrive and coffee cups take their place in front of the coffee maker. Fika is called the habit of Swedes to take a break from everyday life to have coffee with friends while enjoying the cinnamon buns. Coincidentally, on the same day of the interview, October 4th in Sweden, they celebrate the National Day of Cinnamon Buns.

As I told you, our parish here is quite poor. Of course, the Church supports us back to Sweden, but we have to face several challenges. That’s why I chose tbeing and serving abroad. Parishes abroad do not enjoy the advantages of parishes in Sweden such as huge, clean buildings, bureaucratic organization, several employees, etc. “

In my question about their activities as a parish, I would be happy to learn that there have been several things in the last two years. There is a children-youth choir and a youth club where it meets Wednesdays or Saturdays. “We study and discuss. We study mainly religious books, but we love the ancient Greek philosophers and ancient Greek mythology. Despite the odds, the Swedish church will celebrate with all the glory the Christian feasts as well as the Swedish traditions such as the tradition of Lucia — Lucia. The custom of Lucius is celebrated every year in St. Paul’s Anglican Church. We have an excellent collaboration with both the Anglican and all other Lutheran churches here.”

“Unfortunately, we would love to help even more actively to tackle social problems. We are not running our own programs to alleviate vulnerable social groups. Instead, we provide some sponsorship for some who know very well how to do it. First, we give an amount to the Non-Profit Organization APOSTOLI belonging to the Greek Orthodox Archbishopric. Then we give a support to a very worthwhile effort, ANASA. It is a school — circus where pupils either Greeks or refugees or immigrants learn acrobatics. It supports young people so that they can come out of the margin or do not get to the margin. They learn how to work together and how to acquire skills. We are interested in souls. Everyone will give a dish of food or do a medical examination. But who will care for these so tormented souls? “

Volunteers play a very important role in the parish’s actions. “Generally, we have quite a few volunteers. Mostly young volunteers from the Finnish church.”

A few months earlier, I would have noticed a new Finnish in Greece. She had just begun to work in the refugee on behalf of the Finn Church Aid, official organization of the Finnish church.

“But we also have paid staff for a few hours a week. Brigitta, Eva or Mari but also other women. They are employed for the cafe or the administrative part while there are two musicians. “

Björn Kling

“Are you optimistic about the future of the parish in Greece?” I will ask with naivety. He has traveled with the church as a volunteer but also as a priest in places like Tanzania and Eritrea, Paris, Spain. His experiences marked him and shaped him.

“I grew up in a small town in northern Sweden. My parents were not particularly observant, but my friends and I were going to the church. It was a little normal for me to become a priest … “

“At first I went to a very small place of Sweden. I had awesome dreams and innovative ideas for a priest. I dreamt to create a football team, a volleyball team, etc. The people there taught me to make close relationships and learn each other.”

While we share our experiences from Sweden, I would tell him that I believe that the Swedes are not at all religious. “I think the Swedes are very Christian,” Bjorn told me. “And when I say Christians I mean they have, they maintain and they share Christian values. The negative is that it is now a polarized society where everyone is afraid of religion. Is he a Muslim? He is a terrorist. “

We close the interview and the last question I want to ask is about memories. A memory he will keep with him when he leaves Greece.

“I will never forget a feeling. How people feel when they speak their mother tongue again, when they pray and sing hymns that remind them of their childhood, when they find shelter and themselves in their memories.

You next cofee meeting can take place at the cafe of the Swedish Church: https://www.svenskakyrkan.se/grekland/cafe-paulusgarden (with Google translation you will also see the days and hours of operation). If you are interested in seeing a typical Sunday service in Swedish, you can be on Sunday at 18.00 at the Anglican Church of St. Paul in Filellinon. But where you will meet the original Swedish and Scandinavian culture will be in the annual Christmas Bazaar and the tradition of Lucia. To keep up with their news, follow them: https://www.svenskakyrkan.se/grekland & Facebook.

Georgia Gleoudi is a graduate of "MA in Religious Roots in Europe: in Lund University and has a BA in International Relations and European Studies from Panteion University, Athens. She is interested in Religion and State relations, faith - based diplomacy and intercultural relations

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Daughters Gone Forever: Forced Religious Conversions

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Pakistan, an Islamic Republic, has blatantly discriminated religious rights of minorities. Over the years, the laws and policies associated with religious minorities have shifted from being neutral to becoming biased and prejudiced. The constitution stands for equality of all, irrespective of religion, colour, caste and creed. It also puts emphasis on tolerance and respect of all religions.

However, a rising pattern of forced conversions after 7 decades, in the country is making a mockery of the constitution of Pakistan. They are a violation of fundamental rights specified in the country’s constitution. Forced conversion can be defined, in simplest terms as “forced adoption of a different religion under threats, duress and pressure with the use of physical, emotional or psychological violence.” The victim is subjugated to mental, emotional and physical abuse involving threats against their loved ones. More than half of these cases involve girls aged below 18. 

Pakistani religious minorities face several obstacles and great difficulties in the pursuit of justice. However, in this matter of forced conversions, the victims and its family face a great number of hurdles. When the girls are abducted, kidnapped, forcibly converted and married Muslims, the police and other authoritative bodies turn a blind eye. Even if the case reaches the courts, the lower and higher courts have shown a biased attitude and lack of adherence.

Conversion to Islamic religion is a one-way process, once someone becomes Muslim forcibly or voluntarily, then they can’t revert. This is because reversion in Islam is an act of apostasy which is punishable by a death sentence. Role of religious institutions in these cases is another reason for the rapid rise in such incidents. Many religious institutions fail to investigate the nature of the conversion and the reasons behind it. A mere affidavit is provided as a proof for age. Their significance also increases when the conversion certificate issued by the seminary or other religious institutions are used for further investigation by the court and the police.

The role of media is often silent in these cases. The main reason for unreported cases on media is the involvement of powerful religious leaders who pressurise the media to not report the stories. Another factor that limits investigation is the concept of honour among rural families. The victims sometimes themselves with the fear of social stigmatisation, avoid to speak out. This is the reason that majority of such incidents go unreported. The Peoples Commission for Minorities’ Rights and the Centre for Social Justice gave a report of 156 incidents of reported forced conversions between 2013 and 2019 (Jahangir 2020). The actual number can be much higher as many cases are not reported by the police.

Many claim that the converts turn to Islam by choice, not by force.  A very disturbing fact about this inhumane activity is, the girls that are converting are largely underage. Many girls are as young as 12 years. Even in some cases where force is not used, it still cannot be regarded as consent as in case of minors this is rather a compulsion than consent.

The social issue is faced by all the religious minorities, but in particular, it is the most serious problem for Christian and Hindu women and girls.

Forced conversions are an emotional issue for the people of Sindh. An estimated 4.5 million Hindus live in Pakistan, the majority of them are residing in the South Eastern province. These cases are the most vulnerable and persecuted there. At the time of partition, the well-established Hindus of Sindh migrated to India and the remaining became a minority in the newly independent state. The increasing number of forced conversions violate Section 3 and 4 of Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013, which sets 18 years as the minimum marriage age.  (University of Birmingham, 2018)

One such case, was the case of Rinkle Kumari belonging to Ghotki. In February 2012, the young Hindu girl was found missing by her father. Rinkle’s family was informed through a phone call about her conversion. Despite the fact that, numerous times in Sakkar Police Station and almost all court proceedings, she cried and begged to go home with her parents, the husband was allowed to take her home. In April 2012 when she appeared in Supreme Court and her birth certificate which proved that she was below 16 years old, indicated that her marriage was illegal, was not taken into account. In Sindh, marriages below the age of 18 had been outlawed. The only statement about her going with the husband was accepted based on her faith. This case was one of the rare ones that attracted public attention to the issue of security and basic human rights of Pakistan’s Hindu communities. This also bought attention to the absence of legally-binding Hindu Marriage Act. 

In 2017, finally, the Hindu Marriage Act was passed in 2017 which regulated the Hindu marriages and also catered to the problem of forced conversions in Sindh. The Sindh government has twice attempted to outlaw forced conversions and marriages, including 2016 bill introduced by Sindh Provincial Assembly that has not been passed yet. Protection of Minorities Bill, that sets 18 years for conversions was unanimously passed by the Sindh Assembly, but religious parties the bill against forced conversions rejected it and threatened to besiege the assembly. The had objection with age limit for conversions. The same bill was revised in 2019, but again protests by religious parties hurdled the process.

The members of Christian community can be characterised as the socio-economically marginalised group of the society. Most labourer’s belong to religious minorities that are majority Hindus in Sindh and Christians in Punjab. These labourers are subjected to physical abuse, human trafficking and economic exploitation. Just like Hindus, forced conversions are an emotive issue for Christians of Punjab too.

Tania, a 22-year-old Christian girl. She was kidnapped on 20 May, 2012 from Nankana City on her way to home from her job. The request of FIR was repeatedly refused by the police. The intervention of prominent lawyers and an influential figure, who was the ex-mayor of the local Union Council helped Tania’s family in registering FIR. (Movement for Solidarity and Peace 2014)

It was unfortunately then revealed then that before being forcibly converted and married, she was sold and trafficked twice by the abductors. After extensive negotiations between the former mayor, on family’s behalf and the traffickers, who demanded Rs.90,000, the girl was then recovered. When recovered, she showed signs of severe physical, emotional and psychological abuse. This case demonstrated another example where the police lacked authority and control. If the family did not have influential bodies on their side, they would have lost their daughter forever.

Another example is a very recent case of another young Christian girl, Arzoo Masih, 13-year-old was kidnapped and married to a 44-year-old Muslim man. Even though, ‌the Church documents and verified form-B clearly showed that she was 13 and a 6th-grade student, police said the girl was 18-year-old and had willingly converted.

Cases of forced conversions and forced marriages that are reported also highlight the underlying common factors that make religious minorities more vulnerable. The case of Tania shows evidence that forced conversions provide a masquerade for more pervasive crimes such as sexual exploitation, child abuse, prostitution, human trafficking and hurdles of justice. All of this, as a whole, has left a detrimental effect on the social and economic wellbeing of minorities.

To tackle this social issue serious steps, need to be taken by the government. The first and foremost measure taken towards such cases is for the Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill to become law. The Bill addresses many issues related to forced conversions.  It should not only be instituted in Sindh, but attempts should be made to introduce it in National Assembly, Punjab and across Pakistan to help religious minorities. It is also crucial to put attention on failures of the institutional protection of human rights.

The lethargic nature of our governmental system and official institutional bodies is the leading source of numerous problems in the country. It is vital for the government to ensure a faster response system by the police and the criminal justice system. Federal and State governments should guarantee proper legal protection and proceedings are available to the minor religious communities, especially in rural areas.

The socio-economic and cultural position of the religious minorities especially Hindus and Christians should be enhanced. They are mostly found at the bottom of the socio-economic tier which leaves them in a vulnerable position. To deal with this problem, equal access to jobs, education, government positions should be made. Cultural and religious beliefs are strongly engraved in society than in laws. So, in order to mitigate this problem, cultural, societal and religious means should be used. Religious influential leaders should emphasize that conversions should occur without force and compulsion.

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Custodians of Islam, changing their Avatar

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If we peek into the historical traces, it could be seen that the world has fought more wars on religion or for their state’s dignity and integrity than any other reason. It is mainly because accepting others ideologies either its religious or national, it’s hard to accept and this is at present the prevailing issue if someone looks deeper into the complex picture of geo-politics.

United Arab Emirates has passed new laws that have shocked the entire Muslim world. The Arab World has also been perceived as the “custodians of Islam” and other Muslim countries have look towards for the perfect implementation of misinterpreted “Islamic values”, ignoring the fact that mainly the values followed in the Arab world are Arabic not Islamic. There is huge difference among two interpretations.

UAE has recently relaxed its social constraints. These constraints that served as a shield from adopting the un-Islamic practices and pro-western values. UAE has allowed couples to cohabit; it has allowed drinking without fear of punishment. Lastly it has also it put off the honor crime from its menu means; they have criminalized the act of honor killing. The decision of UAE to revamp its policies depicts that UAE has chosen a “new” avatar, a more pro-western avatar, leaving the Islamic values behind.  The broadening of personal freedoms reflects that UAE is on its new journey to change its society at home.

After the announcement of new laws it seems as if United Arab Emirates is more focus on shifting their oil dependent economy or other industries. This includes inviting the high-flow of Israel and Western investments into their country at the cost of anything. They are aiming to boost UAE is the skyscraper tourist destination for Western tourists and fortune seekers, businesses regardless of its “legal hard-line Islamic System.”

Moreover, the major revamps came particularly right after the historic U.S brokered deal to normalize relations between UAE and Israel. The future will reveal but it can be foreseen that the days of monarchy are coming to end. It won’t happen in few years; it will take time but is surely going to happen. The decades old filthy rich monarchy will be replaced by “Democracy” for sure.

Other than the UAE, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is also on the same journey. The new monarch King Muhammad Bin Salman is also tilted towards “Western culture” and more “Liberalist thoughts and values”. He is also more inclined to bring on more liberal structures in their country, for examples recently Saudi Arabia has given more freedom to women for driving and is allowed to work with men at offices or any other workplaces. These drastic changes were considered as an impossible task to do but things are changing rapidly.

The question to ask is, now where would Pakistan tilt? Whose society would Pakistan look upon as the guardian and custodians of Islam and its Islamic values? The Arab countries have also had massive influence upon the Pakistani society particularly in religious terms. Pakistan has to bear the cost of “Wahabbism” clashing with “Shiaism” and other Islamic sects that were mainly brought by the Arabs into the country.

Many Pakistanis have considered the Arabs as their ideal and the Arabian society as an ideal society to live in. I have also heard people giving examples of “Islamic system of Saudi Arabia” and how loyal they are to the “Islamic values”. They are also perceived as the “Guardians” and “Custodians” of Islamic values. But now as they are inclined or totally moving towards Western system, would Pakistan also opt for liberalism in their country?

As there has always been an environment of confusion in the Pakistani society. This confusion is, wither to opt for democracy or go for an Islamic system. This has created a sharp separation in the Pakistani society, the one struggling to go totally Western (far-left), and the others trying to preserve the Islamic system (far-right).

After United Arab Emirates new laws, this question is becoming more complex. The transformation of United Arab Emirates adoption of Westernized values shows that it is only the Muslim world leaving its values behind and moving towards a borrowed baggage of cultures and values. The future will disclose that who will sit on the throne of “Custodian of Islam”. Till now the changing geo-political situation shows that it is Turkey that is striving to go for this throne.

On the current politics of Arab powers I would say, “A tree’s beauty lies in its branches, but its strength lies in its roots,” rightly said by Matshona Dhliwayo.

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Death of a Living Goddess and an Unfair verdict

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Image source: mandalas.life

The Living Goddess of Nepal (Kumari), a prepubescent girl child, possessing divinity is a well established and widely held belief. She is worshipped so long as her virginity remains intact and dismissed when she starts to menstruate.  By all accounts, the reason she is highly revered has much to do with her virginity as the loss of holy status is inevitable after the first menstrual blood. Strong voices regarding child and human rights raised so far have brought remarkable reforms in Kumari practice; yet the elephant in the room, her dethronement after puberty, undeniably a serious problem, is often downplayed. The supposed divinity of the Goddess and it’s connection with pubescence, as outrageous as it sounds, triggers a couple of very important questions. Does the Living Goddess really possess divinity? More importantly, must not we ponder and assess the eventual end of her divinity?

The 19th century famous German philosopher  Friedrich Nietzche declared– God is dead — a metaphor used to describe the gradual decline of faith in God. The philosopher attributes the advent of Scientific revolution and Age of reason in bringing an end to the existence of God, thanks to rational arguments and modern inventions or discoveries. Unlike the death of Western God,  the Living Goddess of Nepal, or her holiness to be precise, meets a surprising death(end), figuratively speaking, at the hands of first menstruation. Sadly, just a few drops of innocent and natural blood, with rosy prospects of procreation and motherhood, is believed to have committed a grave crime that a verdict was passed against it long ago — puberty ends divinity.

Moreover, proclaiming divinity’s end, as soon as Kumari reaches adolescence, she is replaced by another “virgin” child. Even though blood oozing from any part of the body due to cuts or wounds leads to Goddess’ dismissal,  the menstrual blood in every occasion has turned out to be most fatal. To confirm this we can check the numbers of all former Kumaris, and should not get startled if considerable cases are associated with their first period. Matina Shakya(2008-2017) was replaced in 2017 by  Trishna Shakya (2017-present), after puberty ended her nine-year reign. When the same phenomenon hit Preeti Shakya (2001-2008) in 2008, she was shown the door to an anonymous life in the suburbs. Likewise, in 2010 the divine life for Chanira Bajracharya finished abruptly  at 15, on the day she first menstruated and Samita Bajracharya(2010-2014) was appointed the new Kumari of Patan City in her place. It is a pity that once highly hailed all-powerful Goddess, sooner or later becomes a “nobody”, useless and mere mortal. Devotees accustomed to bow down before the deity in the hope of blessings are certainly baffled when simple biological blood brings her supreme divinity to its knees.

What would be the general frame of her mind and psychological state when the child realizes that fending off the imminent demotion is far from possible? Gripped by trepidation, she would definitely not want the undesirable menstruation, the antagonist, to come and take away her most cherished goddess status. Samita was in total shock and emotional at her dismissal following the start of her first period. Similarly, Preeti couldn’t help shedding tears when her term ended at 12 ,and  banished out of the paradise, because of approaching menstruation, which is considered as flawed. This is highly likely to leave a false impression in the mind of a demoted child and the collective consciousness of people. To them puberty or “supposed” impure blood must appear a nemesis of Kumari, a nasty thing that ends her holiness.

God/Goddess’ existence is an unsolved riddle, yet lives of many great sages and mystics throughout the history of Indian subcontinent — Gautam Buddha, Mahavira, Shivapuri Baba, Meera Bai, Lalleshwari, Anandamayi Ma and so on —  convince godliness being a possible phenomenon. With no single exception these humans share two things in common; years of spiritual endeavours and eventual mystical/godliness experience. On the contrary, a girl child is expected to fulfill 32 physical qualities, before worshipped as a Living Goddess. Whether the girl child reaches the same transcendental state as the other divine beings shall always remain a debatable issue. Giving a benefit of doubt, for argument’s sake, we can assume that Kumari’s divinity is no lesser than those of highly revered personages. But would it be judicious to believe that a temporary biological phenomenon is capable of  ending divinity permanently?

In fact, literature on religion, spirituality and mysticism show that divinity is imperishable once obtained, which can be attested by the lives of human-turned holy beings. Thus what fizzles out at puberty’s touch, as in the case of Kumari, must be undeniably spurious and impotent . Above all, it is one thing to enjoy the prerogative of a goddess on chastity grounds but quite another to embark upon a spiritual journey and thereby attain godliness. Maybe the holiness does not exist inside the Living Goddess as believed and claimed, not at all, hence skepticism justified. Or perhaps it was there in profusion, but insofar as Nepalese society is accustomed to find coexistence of divinity and impure blood unbearable, it must have convinced us of the latter’s seemingly antagonistic role.

Challenging the popular yet pernicious existing belief that first menstruation ends divine power, I emphatically advocate that it is high time puberty is acquitted from a crime it “never” committed. Needless to say, since the inception of Kumari custom and up until the 21st century, Nepalese society’s fervent endorsement of such belief coupled with their reluctance to point fingers against the traditional practice certainly consolidated the superstition for many centuries. It “might” be our rights to continue long held old traditions and worship girl children in the form of goddesses, regardless of some compromises with their child and human rights. But we are not in the least entitled to mercilessly dethrone them under a completely false or trifle pretext. More importantly, we are not at liberty to dub a harmless biological phenomenon with an undeserved ugly reputation, on account of our illogical blood(menstrual) phobia. How many years or decades more it will take before we realize that menstruation is by no means impure, inauspicious and unholy?  Although the divinity of the Living Goddess appears disputable, one thing seems as clear as crystal, that the verdict passed against innocent pubescence to date was downright unfair. Unfortunately, the apotheosis of a girl child(woman) to a Living Goddess status is undermined by the fact that the Kumari practice explicitly condemns menses, an integral aspect of womanhood.

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