Never one to shy from controversy, Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen used his Easter Mass to denounce deadly Israeli attacks against Palestinian protesters and a Norwegian minister stirring up fears of foreigners and the mass murders by Anders Behring Breivik in a narrative about fear and the need to not submit to hopelessness against fighting it.
“We all know what horror is,” he said at the beginning of his sermon, referring to relatively innocent references about being afraid of the dark as a child and the fear many feel during Longyearbyen’s wall-shaking storms. But that gave way quickly to a harsh attack on Israel for a Good Friday attack by Israel on Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border that killed at least 17 people.
“Now at Easter, Israeli soldiers have shot sharply against civilian women, children and men,” Helgesen said. “Israeli soldiers are set against neighbors. 16 Palestinians were killed. 1,400 wounded. 758 of them were injured by gunshots. Several were shot in the back when they tried to escape.”
Helgesen’s feelings about Israel’s actions against Palestinians in the West Bank are well-known: he has spent two multiple-month stints in recent years protesting attacks on Palestinian settlements and called for a boycott on an Israeli-made products. He spared no words in narrating the narrating the horrors he said he saw during his time in the Middle East.
“It is a fear that many people live with every day,” he said. “Fear of terror. Fear of grenades that can blow them apart. Fear of tear gas and soldiers with weapons loaded with explosives. Road bombs that hit blindly. Bullets that find their calculated goals. Olive trees destroyed the darkness of the night. Dogs trained to attack people. It’s calculating evil.”
From there he made a quick transition to a more locally relevant horror: the July 22, 2011, mass murder by Breivik that killed one local teenager and hospitalized another for months with near-fatal injuries. Helgesen noted this year’s Confirmation members visited a memorial outside the church for Johannes Buø, 14, a local resident killed by Breivik, recognizing the need to never forget the hatred that inspired the killings, before denouncing the now-former Justice of Ministry and Public Security Minister Sylvi Listhaug who resigned following a Facebook post accusing political opponents of coddling terrorists.
Helgesen noted the post was written on the same day a high-profile movie about the massacre by Breivik was released and she targeted the same Liberal Party politicians Breivik did.
“It was dangerous calculative rhetoric,” Helgesen said. “It was a political-level communication, but it was a low blow that is not worthy of our government and our politicians.”
But while the duration of the sermon was graphic and stormy, Helgesen concluded his sermon by telling congregants they cannot submit to hopelessness.
“There is always hope that strength is better than hopelessness,” he said. “What I’m afraid of is the indifference. If I become indifferent to what happens to evil in the world then I will be afraid. If, as a community, we become indifferent to the wickedness of the world, if we should be indifferent to words and actions that kill, then I’ll be afraid.”
A more tranquil message was offered by Helgesen during his traditional outdoor Good Friday Mass which, according to Svalbardposten, was attended by about 60 people who braved strong winds and temperatures of minus 16 degrees Celsuis. But most attendees – along with a significant portion of Longyearbyen’s population, were already outdoors on extended trips to cabins and other destinations for the Easter Week holiday.
“It is something to celebrate Mass in this great cathedral with the Tempelfjellet and the fjord as an altarpiece,” Helgesen said. “The wind bites and your fingers freeze. It’s always hard to talk, since your cheeks and voices also freeze. Nevertheless, the fellowship is warming.”