Kyle Svennungsen is a missionary in Bratislava, Slovakia, where, among other duties, he is pastor of the English-speaking Bratislava International Church. Its worship space in the city’s Old Town borough was constructed at a time when Protestantism was barely tolerated in Slovakia, a historically Catholic country, so the building doesn’t look much like a church. No crosses or stained-glass windows are visible from the outside. The entrance is tucked into a cobblestone alleyway, out of view.
The “directions” section of the congregation’s website reads: “If you are a few minutes late because of trouble finding the church, you wouldn’t be the first.”
Svennungsen likes to tell the story of how his friend and parishioner Ahmad (name changed) decided to create a sandwich board to stand outside the building, naming the different groups that worship inside. The process of getting the sign approved was surprisingly difficult. He had to design it in a way that would meet many different city requirements and win approval from parish leadership. Still, Ahmad persevered until the sign was finished. Thanks to him, it’s now a little easier for people to find the church doors on Sunday mornings.
For Svennungsen, this story illustrates Ahmad’s dedication to their faith community. But it also demonstrates that Ahmad doesn’t give up in the face of red tape. He has plenty of experience in that area—he has been trying to gain asylum status from the Slovak state for over seven years.
A long journey
Ahmad came to Bratislava from Iran as a young adult. His personal faith journey led him to Christianity, and he was baptized at Bratislava International Church. After his religious conversion, he received multiple death threats from residents of his hometown. He couldn’t return to Iran safely, yet the Slovak government also made it difficult for him to stay in Bratislava.
Ahmad went through the lengthy and involved process of applying for asylum status as a refugee. He gathered the many necessary documents, including an authentic certificate of Christian baptism.
As Svennungsen puts it, Islam is “barely tolerated” in Slovakia, the way Protestantism once was. Because Ahmad was a former Muslim from a Muslim country, he needed to prove that he was a practicing Christian. Even though he had the correct materials and met the requirements for asylum, his application was rejected. He appealed the decision and submitted his application again. And again, and again.
Ahmad couldn’t return to Iran safely, yet the Slovak government also made it difficult for him to stay in Bratislava.
When Svennungsen became pastor of the congregation in 2019, Ahmad was already a member. By that time he had been trying to gain asylum for years. The previous pastor had written multiple letters of endorsement to government officials. Svennungsen wrote at least three more affirming that Ahmad was a confessed, baptized and practicing Christian.
Svennungsen said he was troubled by how resistant the government seemed to be toward Ahmad—especially when it was so welcoming to other refugees. When Russian forces launched their unprovoked attack on Ukraine in February, Ukrainians came pouring into neighboring Slovakia to escape the conflict. Svennungsen watched his neighbors give up clothes, food, money and sometimes even rooms in their homes to these strangers. He was inspired by his community’s response, but he also suspected that the reaction would have been different had the refugees looked less like Slovaks and more like Ahmad.
“We felt a great tension, knowing how Ahmad was not treated in the same way because of racism as well as ethnic and religious prejudice,” he said.
Svennungsen describes Ahmad as warm and genuine. Despite his difficulty finding acceptance in Slovakia, his dedication to his faith community has not wavered. Ahmad writes the church’s newsletter every week. During the pandemic he and his fiancee moved over an hour away from the church, but they still make the drive to attend services on Sunday mornings.
“We felt a great tension, knowing how Ahmad was not treated in the same way because of racism as well as ethnic and religious prejudice.”
Svennungsen’s wife, Anna, notes that Ahmad is always willing to hold their 1-year-old son. “He really makes you feel seen and heard when you’re talking with him,” she said. “We are so privileged and honored to know him, to have him as part of our community.”
Eventually Ahmad’s case reached the highest court in Slovakia, where a pro bono immigration lawyer helped him argue his case. Ahmad has told Svennungsen that he expects to win asylum at his next hearing. The Svennungsens hope to celebrate this with him soon.
They also hope they can help build a community that is more accepting of refugees and migrants such as Ahmad, who don’t look Slovak and whose stories don’t appear on the evening news. They have already begun this work with Ahmad’s partnership.
As their new sign indicates, the church doors are open to all.
To learn more about the ELCA’s efforts to accompany our neighbors in other countries, visit elca.org/globalmission.