Meron Estefanos is a prominent critic of the Eritrean regime.
Meron Estefanos, a prominent critic of the Eritrean regime.

Stockholm church linked to Eritrean regime still receiving Swedish state grants

7:57 min

Despite an investigation showing links to the Eritrean dictatorship, the Santa Maria church will still receive Swedish state aid.

In September, Swedish Radio's investigative programme Kaliber found evidence that a church with links to Eritrea's totalitarian regime was receiving Swedish state grants to integrate young refugees. 

Meron Estefanos, a prominent Sweden-based critic of the regime, told Radio Sweden that ever since Eritrean newcomers had been arriving in greater numbers, there had been a tug-of-war between pro-government and independent Eritrean church groups over who gets them first.

She was worried that too many young refugees were being drawn into the Santa Maria congregation, which she alleges has links to the Eritrean state. But Aman Russom, who is responsible for refugee services at the Santa Maria church, insists "110 per cent" that they are not controlled by Eritrea – at least not in Sweden.

Kaliber gathered testimonies from critics of the regime feeling unwelcome in Santa Maria services. Some sources gave accounts of the church of spreading regime propaganda and spying on refugees.

When Kaliber reporters presented Russom with a picture of Santa Maria's priest shaking hands with Eritrea's foreign minister and a presidential advisor at a festival in Stockholm this summer, he argued that priests were guests of honour at festivals.

"There's a mutual respect with the Eritrean state," he said. "But we don't have any activities that are controlled by them. We don't. And we don't communicate with the embassy in a way that would suggest they have an interest in us either. We're not politically active." Russom also rejected all claims of espionage.

If the church denies the main source of their asylum, then how can they help these children?

Estefanos made the case that Swedish state grants awarded to the church – SEK 300,000 since the influx of refugees in 2015, to aid integration efforts, on top of SEK 800,000 this year for its religious services – was inappropriate, as such grants are only supposed to go to organisations which "maintain and strengthen the fundamental values of society", including "respect for democracy".

Kaliber presented evidence of the church's association to the Eritrean regime, including images and statements from leading figures of the church, to Max Stockman, an administrator at the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities. He admitted there were grounds to "look at the issue again".

On 2 November, he told Radio Sweden that the Agency had "engaged in a dialogue" with the church, but found no reasons to cancel the funds.


Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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