Army chaplain for Christians, Muslims and non-believers

Army chaplain, prison chaplain and former military police. Armed with a gun, an automatic rifle, and a bible, Andrew Holm is prepared to embark on his fifth foreign mission. Holm is an unusual priest, who cares for the souls of both Christians and Muslims.

Photo: Sven-Åke Haglund

When Andrew Holm resigned from his training as a military police officer at K1 some years ago and became a non-combatant, neither he nor any once else probably expected that he would ever again bear the uniform of the Swedish Armed Forces.

Yet that was exactly what happened. After a few years, Andrew returned to K1 and has been on a number of foreign missions since then, both as a military police officer and an army chaplain.

Andrew Holm was ordained as a minister in 1995. With the establishment of the NBG, he is prepared to go out on his fifth mission. In Croatia, he served as an MP, In Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan he was an army chaplain. In both capacities, he was nearly always armed. Could he not be an army chaplain without bearing arms?
“I have struggled a great deal with that question. There are volatile situations in which I must be prepared to protect the lives of others and my own life with an automatic rifle. In my role as an army chaplain, I can venture further out into the field, if I am armed and a soldier among soldiers. Being part of a patrol without being armed, however, I may be a burden on others, who in addition to their other tasks have to protect me,” says Andrew.

And he is well-armed even now. The former military police carries both a pistol and an AK 5, which is sensational to say the least among his clerical colleagues from other countries and other faiths. Today, the only army chaplains who are armed are those from Scandinavia, Austria and Switzerland.

“As priests, we are non-combatants and have special legal protection according to the Geneva Convention that we must respect. If I open fire, not only my own actions, but the chaplain’s role in all defence forces will be called into question.

Support for a Muslim?
The role in which Andrew Holm finds himself as a Lutheran army chaplain begs the question as to whether a legitimate Christian can bear arms in several ways.
In the Nordic-Baltic-Irish NBG, there are also Muslims and Catholics. Can Andrew Holm provide help and support for a Muslim?

“Absolutely! On a human level with all due respect for the fact that we have different religions. My experience from the Balkans and Afghanistan is that the Muslims I meet, both civilians and those in uniform, appreciate that I represent the spiritual world. One of my friends, who is an imam in Västerås, has taught me a lot about how Muslims are renewing their own traditions and how they react in a given situation,” says Andrew.

Will he be holding the special religious service that is called a chorum in the NBG?
“Yes, I will, and as far as I know, both Catholics and believers in Islam will participate side by side with those who are accustomed to religious services here at home and with others who have not set foot in a church since they were confirmed.
“I do not force my belief on others. It is a belief about which many soldiers are sceptical. It would be highly irresponsible of me to take advantage of my position to convert someone,” explains Andrew.

"I cannot force my belief on others. It would be highly irresponsible to take advantage of my position."

Is it true that completely normal Swedish soldiers often become frequent visitors to the worship room when home is suddenly far away?

“I certainly perceive that interest for talks about spiritual and existential matters increases the further away from home the soldier is, but my perception may also be due to the fact that I spend all my time with my congregation, which in this case is the company or the battalion.

“Everything relating to spirituality is naturally voluntary for the soldier. That’s how it has to be. It also isn’t necessary to buy the whole package. You can still just drop in for a worship service. A few moments for reflection and relaxation is something that everyone seeks in a stressful situation,” says Andrew.

Half time in prison
For a number of years, Andrew Holm was the regiment chaplain for the now disbanded P 10 unit in Strängnäs. Currently, he works half time at the large new prison facility Salberga in Sala in parallel with his duties within the NBG.

“There are many similarities in being a prison chaplain and spiritual advisor for conscripts and foreign soldiers. In both cases, these are meetings with people who most often do not have any contact with the church in their daily lives but who in a special situation feel a need both to look higher and look inside themselves,” observes Andrew.

Is it possible to prepare yourself as a priest for the very, very tragic situation that may affect NBG and other foreign missions in the form of loss of human life?

“Breaking down what is really incomprehensible into smaller pieces helps make it understandable in the end. What I must understand is that not even I as a spiritual counsellor am alone, no matter what happens. There is an organization of skilled people close at hand who each take care of their duties. I am also a piece of the puzzle and can focus on those who need me the most,” concludes Andrew Holm.

Text & Foto: Sven-Åke Haglund