Finland’s Jewish community commemorates 100 years of Helsinki synagogue

HELSINKI, Finland Finland’s Jewish community gathered Sunday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Helsinki synagogue with government representatives, foreign dignitaries and leaders of the Nordic country’s Lutheran and Orthodox churches.

President Tarja Halonen, Parliament speaker Paavo Lipponen and Israeli Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog were among the guests to honor the synagogue, the main house of worship for the 1,200 -strong Jewish community in the Finnish capital.

Archbishop Jukka Paarma and Archbishop Leo, the leaders of the Lutheran and Orthodox churches also attended ceremonies, which gathered a few hundred people to the pale yellow -shade synagogue in downtown Helsinki.

Jewish community’s spokesman Gideon Bolotovsky said representatives of the Finnish Catholic church and the small Islamic community took part in the festivities as well.

“This proves that dialogue between different religions works on a very practical level in this country,” Bolotovsky told Finnish YLE radio news, stressing the tolerant religious atmosphere in the Nordic nation of 5.2 million, which is predominantly Lutheran with an Orthodox minority of around 58,000 people.

A large part of the some 1,600 Jews currently living in the country are descendants of the Jewish soldiers who served in the Russian army in Finland in the mid-19th century, when Finland was an autonomous grand duchy of the czarist empire.

The soldiers eventually gained the right to settle in the Nordic country and created basis for the Jewish community, establishing a synagogue in Helsinki in 1906. When Finland became independent in 1917, Jews were given full civil rights.

During World War II, Jews served along with Finns in the national army, fighting aggressions from both the Soviet Union and, later, Nazi Germany. Despite repeated pleas from one-time ally Germany, the Finnish government refused to take action against Jews or deprive their civil rights during the war.

“We feel natural sympathy for the Israeli people. You could say that … Jewry in Finland is enjoying special protection,” Lipponen said in his speech Sunday.

Besides the Helsinki house of worship complete with Jewish school, there is also a synagogue in the western city of Turku, where some 200 Jews live.

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