A church in Kristianstad, Sweden, is desecrated. An unknown party has been masturbating in the nave. On the floor are faeces and used syringes.
The parish thinks drug addicts are to blame – but in the US a different explanation has reached millions through Facebook.
Måns Mosesson tells the story of how one piece of fake news went global, all from a shabby basement room in Macedonia.
He knows getting out of bed before dawn is a bad habit and one he wants to give up.
As ever though he is already awake. As the sunrise begins to reflect in the shared pool of The Brittany, the Florida residential complex he lives in, former computer repair man Michael grabs his support frame and goes to the living room. He pours some coffee and begins going through his news feed.
He doesn’t trust CNN, nor CBS or NBC any more. On Facebook though he can fill up on his favourite sources. That morning, the site Focus News has posted a frightening report.
The article concerns a church on the other side of the Atlantic.
”When the Church of the Holy Trinity in Kristianstad, Sweden embraced a group of Muslim asylum seekers, they were shocked to find that the Islamists took advantage of their generosity in the sickest ways”, it reads. The piece tells the story of a gullible parish that lets refugees stay in their church until they discover that ”the Muslims they gave food, shelter, and love were not only destroying the church property but were relentlessly urinating, defecating, and masturbating in the pews.”
The story grew in popularity; soon shared on Facebook pages with over 10 million followers.
When I speak to Michael on the phone he can still recall how outraged he was.
“You do not desecrate a House of God”, he says. “The Muslims hate the Christians, OK? That's all Islam is, it's politics. It's not a religion, alright, although they want you to believe that. They have said they are going to take over the world. If you look in the Koran, I don't know where, but if you open the Koran you'll find that it's there too.”
Over 12.000 Americans saw the article from Focus News, many of them pitching in with social media comments
“Demons from hell”, reads one from a Texan with a puppy on her profile picture. “Send them back to their own country!!!!!”, adds Joan. Sandra, a mother of two comments: “Sickening if it is true, and like others have said, would not doubt it.”
But there were good reasons to doubt it.
In the centre of Kristianstad The Holy Trinity Church rises proudly over the rooftops.
In summertime coaches of Germans and Dutch tourists come to Kristianstad to admire what is considered to be one of the best-preserved Renaissance churches in Europe, built of stone in 1628 by King Christian IV of Denmark.
Lena Bruce has been its minister for seventeen years, appreciated by her parish for her skills in spiritual guidance and a talent for talking both to needy and strong alike.
The last few years though have led even the resilient Bruce to grow tired of all the Church has had to put up with.
“I was giving a sermon”, she says, “it must have been last spring. I had already started to be annoyed by two men who were clearly quite drunk, both of them. One of them leaned forward, his jacket opened and under it he had an enormous knife. And I sort of just felt… help! In the middle of my sermon!”
The man never turned violent and was escorted from the church, but it was one of several incidents that has forced the parish to reconsider its open minded attitude.
In the aisle leading to the pulpit, the acrid smell of urine confronts the minister, dried into the four century-old brick floor. The fact that the toilet is locked when the church is unmanned is apparently no barrier to people relieving themselves inside.
There is more than just stale urine too.
“Over there someone had deposited a really big one”, says caretaker Göran Kjell , tasked with hosing away the excrement. “It wasn’t, so to say, in solid form but it was…well, someone had serious digestive problems.”
The interior of the church is prepossessing. From the ceiling hangs a giant chandelier, a gift from General Ulfeldt, son-in-law to the Danish king.
Then there is the organ, with more than 3,000 pipes, imported from Holstein in Germany. The altar, a full fifteen feet high, came from Amsterdam.
Under the ornate wooden pews, with carvings of snakes and fish, Göran Kjell has had to contend with bloody syringes and broken alcohol bottles in recent years.
It was there, in the northernmost bank of pews, he discovered a young man one morning a couple of years ago. He was lying under the seats in his jacket, his penis sticking out.
“There were two women policemen trying to shake some life into him, recalls the caretaker.” They tried to talk to him but of course that was not possible, he was so into his own.”
Kjell laughs at the memory.
“It took a while to pry loose his hands. That’s how high he was. Right out in the mist, kind of.”
Kristianstad railway station is just 50 metres from the wooden doors of the church, on the other side of Västra boulevarden, a long grand avenue.
In the station waiting room Pia Jönsson leans on her crutch. Haphazardly applied mascara rings a set of friendly eyes, dirt under her lilac-painted nails. On the floor is a family pack of coconut snowballs. Next to it is 10.2 per cent super-strength beer. By her side sits Larsa Jonssson, his nose swollen red and with a leather jacket under a neon quilted ski top.
“Both Pia and I are often at the church warming ourselves a bit. My problem is that I snore, when I get started it echoes all over the place.”
“Yes, it’s crazy”, says Pia with a laugh.
They are accompanied by more friends, waiting for the homeless shelter in Näsby to open for the night. Carola Stridh naps with her jacket covering her head. And Lars “Åke” Åkerman is sitting by the sliding doors casually setting fire to a Kinder egg. The plastic fumes dance away towards the Espresso House coffee shop.
The parish warden, Bengt Alvland, sits in his office overlooking the church and its surroundings.
“For us it has been completely OK that our regular homeless people, those who used to hang around the station, have gone to the church to warm themselves. They have even been served buns and coffee in connection with the services. But all of a sudden there are new ones coming…”
He points out the window. On the other side of the church from the railway station there is a recently opened clinic.
For more than a year heroin addicts have been legally receiving methadone and assistance with their addictions there.
“As the clinic opened we began to see people we had not seen in church before and they were much rowdier than our old homeless people. More lost minds, stronger forms of addiction.”
Bengt has been in contact with the local police, who hold the same view; the mess in the church is largely due to a new stream of addicts coming to town to collect their daily dose.
“Our aim is to have an open church where you can come in to have a moment with God”, says Bengt. “But we certainly do not want people to be afraid of coming to our church, so therefore we were obliged to do something.”
The parish wants to have guards who can be present at services and christenings and patrol the church when necessary. For that they need a permit from the police in the nearby city of Malmö.
It is September 2016 and Bengt Alvland is compiling all the incidents that have occurred in the last few years.
He recounts the most dramatic one, when a few years ago at a christening a drunk man ran up and tried to grab the baby. Other incidents included attempts to steal the altarware, people setting fire to service sheets in the candle holder, pushing their way forward to take all the biscuits after a service, and then the semen, excrement and syringes of course.
It was a perfect little story, defecation and masturbation in the House of God.
Naturally the local paper were soon on it.
Who is behind the desecration of the church? asked reporters from local title Kristianstadsbladet.
Bengt Alvland cannot of course say for certain. There are no witnesses to many of the incidents, but he is still set on saying it as he sees it, linking it with the opening of the new methadone clinic. As is often the case when someone speculates or generalises, the details are slightly unclear.
It is at that moment of uncertainty that things are set in motion.
To understand why, it is helpful to quote the exact words from the piece that Kristianstadsbladet posted on its website on 7th December 2016.
“Bengt Alvland does not know who these disrupting persons are”, it says. “He says that they are not the usual homeless people, known to the staff, but ‘a new clientele’.”
The story is followed by the normal sequence of events when a piece of remarkable news travels. The article gets quoted by national news agency TT, as well as the evening papers Aftonbladet and Expressen. It appears on public service television SVT in the evening.
Some xenophobic sites also pick it up. They post quotes that are technically correct, but to many readers it is clear that “a new clientele” means something other than what Alvland intended.
“The mass invasion now appears in more grotesque forms than ever, disrespectful apes” is one of the comments on Nordfront, a campaigning organisation for the white power Nordic resistance movement. “Just as I thought that the gypsies couldn’t sink lower…” writes another. “If we take another Christian country, Poland for example, they would have dragged the gypsies out and given them a thorough beating.”
Right wing Swedish site Fria Tider runs it with the headline: “’New clientele’ crap and masturbate in church’”.
The same article is the basis for a piece on anti-Islamic site Mad World News in the USA, twisting the story almost beyond recognition.
A lot of the traffic outside of Sweden though only comes when the story is picked up by a group of people who over the past six months have become an unlikely driving force in the fake news machine: The poor but computer-savvy young men of Macedonia.
In the middle of the town of Kumanovo sit the grandiose City Archives, the red and yellow Macedonian flag fluttering above the entrance. I make my way down the side of the building and open a sheet metal gate, finding myself in a courtyard full of junk. There is a broken cement mixer, some homemade ladders, and a car being repaired.
Ivan Stankovic opens the door drowsily, bending down under the boiler stuck to the wall as he invites me to sit on his sofa, which also doubles as his bed.
His grandfather built the house, which nowadays leans in several directions at once and looks as if it is about to collapse under its own weight. His father lives on the top floor, and took out a bank loan to buy his son a computer.
It was from that computer that Ivan posted an article on his home page on the 8th December 2016. The piece was about how Muslims had defecated and masturbated in a church in Sweden.
“It was a real hit”, Ivan says. “The second I read the headline I knew that it was going to run like crazy. It hits people right in the head.”
Ivan waves his arms about, a caricature of an outraged American.
”'How can this shit be!? It's not possible!' It has become my job to figure out what people in the US want to read, topics that they want to share with their friends. Donald, Melania… Islam, Muslims. Everybody clicks on stuff like that.”
The headline of Ivan’s article read: Liberal church houses Muslim refugees, horrified by what they find in pews.
The numbers are pretty detailed:
The story reached 12,880 of those following Ivan’s page on Facebook.
The piece was shared 110 times.
Most importantly, there were 3,324 Americans who clicked through to Ivan’s site.
Around 11 per cent of those visitors also clicked on one of the ads.
Every American click is worth 0.06 US dollars, which means that Ivan earned almost 22 dollars from the one article.
That may sound like petty money to some, but it isn’t for the 25-year old Macedonian.
“I have been out of work for four years”, he says. “So this is perfect for me. I can sit at home and make money and even have a smoke at the same time.”
Six months before we meet, a friend from secondary school knocked on the door of Ivan’s basement home. There were rumours that Ivan had a modern computer. The friend claimed it was possible to make money by posting articles about American politics on the net.
“I told him to go fuck himself”, Ivan laughs. “Do you think I'm a kid who believes everything? I was sure he was just making fun of me.”
After finishing school Ivan pent time in temporary jobs, doing gardening in a park and helping his father with carpentry. He worked without pay for three months in a shoemaker’s workshop on a promise to get paid from the fourth, but when the time came he was apparently surplus to requirements.
His friend sat down in front of the computer and showed him a programme which could be used for making money from net ads. The model was simple: You set up a website with, say, health advice. The programme then arranges so that businesses that want to sell lotions or herbal teas put their ads on your page. You earn money based on how many people people click on the adverts.
The most cash is made from Americans, who have greater purchasing power. A click from the USA can be three times more valuable than one from Belgium or South Africa.
During late summer a rumour began flying around the young men of Kumanovo: You could get lots of Americans to read your articles if you wrote about the Trump presidential campaign.
Some people loved him. Others hated him.
They all clicked.
Ivan and his friend scraped together some money, bought a domain and learned how to build a website from YouTube videos.
Ivan borrowed a name from Focus, an action movie starring Will Smith he had just seen. He added another word to show what the home page was about.
Focus News. It sounded serious and American enough.
The Macedonian troll industry has its roots in the town Veles, an industrial community winding up the ravines of the river Vardar.
Black smoke from the smelting plant on its north side, where zinc and lead has been produced for thirty years, has stuck on the walls and stained the town a sticky grey. Around the turn of the millennium The World Health Organization listed the long valley as one of the world’s most polluted areas. The local population have protested to make sure the metal works remain closed. Jobs are not much good when the soil cannot be used for growing food and children are born with severe developmental defects.
As a result though, one in three citizens in Veles has no income.
In the schoolyard of the Koco Racin School a small gang stands smoking, waiting for their geography lesson to begin.
“Here there are 600 students”, says a guy with a fur collar and a thin moustache. “The girls are not so interested but there are easily 100 guys, just here in this school, who run websites. I have two myself.”
Slagan, a 16-year old with braces, heard about fake news at the beginning of last summer.
“There are two brothers who are a few years older than we are. I was told that one of them had been to The Maldives on vacation. The other one bought a BMW. Things like that stick out in such a small town. The rumour about them became viral here in Veles. Then I had a friend who, in the beginning of the autumn, tested posting some lie about Hillary Clinton. He received almost 550 dollars in one single day! That’s when I started too.”
“It’s so simple”, the guy with a moustache says, smiling. ”You don’t even have to bother about how the page looks. You just start posting stuff. Some who do this can hardly speak English, the only thing you need to know is how to cut and paste.”
It was Macedonian paper Meta that first noticed that six sites filled with lies about American politics were registered at addresses in Veles in the spring of 2016.
When the American news and lifestyle site Buzzfeed delved further it turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. As winter set in at least 140 pages could be traced to the polluted industrial town. They all had names designed to feel American and trustworthy: USA Daily Politics, US Conservative Today, and World Politicus. Some simply tried to piggyback on the credibility of established media giants, like NY Times Politics and NBC Info.
The sites from Veles seem to have had an impact on the final stage of the election campaign in the US. Their power did not emanate from producing the texts – that was almost always done by someone else – but in how clever they were at spreading the articles in social media.
One concrete example is a piece posted by Macedonian site Conservative State. At the end of October 2016 the site posted a piece describing how Hillary Clinton a few years earlier had wished Donald Trump would run for president because businessmen like him are ”very honest” and “can't be bought.”
Within a week or so almost half a million Americans reacted to the article on Facebook by sharing, commenting and clicking. It did not seem to matter that the news piece originally came from an American satirical site and that Clinton, in her quote, never mentioned Donald Trump.
Many times the articles that have the greatest impact are those that are most flexible with the truth. The claim that the Pope supported the Trump candidacy, for example, was plucked from thin air. As was the assertion that Vice President Mike Pence called Michelle Obama “the most vulgar First lady we've ever had.” They were pieces of news made up by Americans, but shrewdly spread by Macedonians with a good internet connection.
The boys in the schoolyard have seen the whole process. They know you shouldn’t be afraid of twisting stories. Quite the reverse in fact.
“Sometimes it's hard to understand how people can believe this stuff, says Slagan with a laugh. “That Obama has joined Isis and things like that. Totally stupid things. But people click on them.”
“We make a lot of money lying”, says his friend with the fur collar. “I don’t care about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or any other politician. I just want to make some money.”
They both laugh and pick up their backpacks.
“We are kids and we earn more than the grown-ups around here!”
At first the founder of Facebook dismissed criticism of the site’s influence.
“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small part of the content, influenced the election in any way – I think is a pretty crazy idea”, stated Mark Zuckerberg at a seminar in California days after Donald Trump had been elected President.
In the summer of 2016 the Pew Research Center, which continuously gauges the net habits of the American people, found that social media had seriously started to challenge TV, radio and newspapers as a source of news. 62 per cent of respondents said that they got their news from Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Naturally it put Facebook in the line of fire. A business that had always stressed it was a tech company and not a news source had turned into one of the prime avenues of news in America.
Was this really the promise of the democratic web? The algorithms of a company helping people to lock themselves inside their own digital bubbles? Bubbles that were now filled with pure lies dressed up as journalism?
Stories from inside the Facebook HQ in Palo Alto began to leak, as members of staff claimed that they had noticed the spread of fake news long ago and tried to alert top management, but to no avail.
After a massive storm of criticism though, Facebook now seems to be taking the situation more seriously.
Last December the mechanism for users to report content suspected of being fake was simplified. Reports are looked into by an external partner specialising in viral vetting. If they find errors the article can be marked as false. At the end of January, Facebook also announced that they had changed their algorithm to suppress false news in people’s feeds, leading to fewer users seeing them. In Germany the company has even begun collaborating with a group of investigative journalists ahead of the general election there this autumn.
In front of his computer in Macedonia Ivan Stankovic shrugs off his worries.
“They can try to stop this as best they can, but you can always find ways around it.”
He takes a puff on his cigarette. He has noticed a few times lately when Facebook has managed to suppress the spreading of a piece of fake news. But how do you decide what is the truth? Much of his content, like the piece about the church in Kristianstad, is not without foundation. People were documented vandalising the church, but then bits are taken away and others added. The end result is a twisted mess. It takes time to sift through what is correct or not.
The bottom line is that his business is doing better and better. Focus News now has close to 200,000 followers on Facebook and so far not one single article of his has been flagged as false.
He starts work at ten in the evening, just when the Americans on the other side of the globe are coming home from work.
He puts a few logs in the old stove, the only heat source in the room.
He makes some Turkish coffee on the flame from the gas burner, and puts on his quilted jacket and two pair of socks.
Then he starts fishing for content. He has five or six favourite pages from which he steals most of his stories. They have writers who know how to spin a tale. The parent sites have names such as Freedom Daily and Conservative Fighters.
Ivan doesn’t care what the articles are about. He looks only at the numbers.
“This one is for sure false”, he says opening an article from the site Mad World News. “But it has gotten 200 likes and 28 shares in a short time. This one is popular. That means it is a good article. So I copy it and I post it on my site.”
He found the story about the masturbating drug addicted Muslims this way, on Mad World News, an anti-Islamic site whose writers pose with weapons declaring their will to ”fight back against the liberal media” by reporting ”the stories that the mainstream media ignores.”
Mad World News’ report referred back to Fria Tider in Sweden but had adapted the article heavily.
There was a reference to bloody syringes in the text, but the bit about drug addiction had been brushed off. Instead the vandalism was said to have a political motive and some of it was completely made up.
”Aside from leaving their offensive bodily fluids everywhere, the migrants scream Islamic chants and smash liquor bottles on the floor in an attempt to silence Christian worshippers from praying to God,” read the report, and claimed that ”When churches open their doors to the heathen religion of Islam, they are inviting in the very ideology that commands their death for not bowing down to their false god.”
Stankovic laughs from his chair in front of the computer.
“Drug addicts in the church isn’t very exciting, is it? So I guess they changed it to Muslims to make the article more popular. It’s as simple as that.”
And popular it became. The story was shared in different versions by other young men in Macedonia, but also on similar websites in Georgia and Kosovo. Just like Ivan, several of these sites have hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook.
Articles about Sweden and immigration are often popular among Trump supporters in the USA. Ivan noticed the trend when he shared a piece saying that ”many towns in Sweden banned the use of Christmas lights on the streets to avoid offending the millions of Muslim migrants that have flooded their country in the last two years.”
In reality the Swedish Transport Administration had decided not to use their lampposts for Christmas decorations in certain Swedish towns because the poles were not considered strong enough to carry the weight of the lanterns.
Ivan’s article, saying that Muslims were the reason for the ban in Sweden, became his first big success.
“It went totally crazy”, Ivan says. “I earned a month’s salary in one day. I had never made that much from a single article before.”
He walks over to a couple of hooks by the door. Proudly he takes down a designer Inter Klas by Safari wool coat. The coat, and a pair of Turkish low-price jeans, are what he bought with the income he got from the article about Christmas decorations being banned “to avoid offending Muslim 'refugees'.”
It is Tuesday in Kristianstad. There is a commotion on the stairs in front of the drug addiction clinic, just by the Holy Trinity Church.
Lilac lips, dried blood on their cheeks, thin jackets in the winter cold.
The new clientele.
“Has she opened this one already, or what?”
A guy with a big beard is trying to fiddle open the safety lid on a bottle of methadone. His buddy bends towards him, the tattoos on his neck showing under the collar.
“No. It’s unopened.”
“I’m just thinking… so that the cunt hasn’t tricked me”, answers the bearded guy, who has come on the local train to reclaim what he lent his female friend last night. “You see, I had a 150 dose and then I gave her 10 milligrams. Otherwise she wouldn’t go to sleep”, he mumbles.
Last December clinic manager Camilla Wallin was provoked into responding when her patients were given sole blame for the disturbances in the church. The police were quoted in the local paper saying that addicts had come in from the larger cities of Malmö and Helsingborg with an “aggressive attitude”. On Kristianstad’s Channel 4 local radio, Wallin answered that the patients were not from the big cities but the local area. Furthermore, they were seeking health care voluntarily in order to change their lives. They were hardly the type of patients prone to pissing in a church on the way home.
To some listeners this was proof that the Church leaders were not telling the whole truth: If the addicts were not behind it, then maybe someone else was?
When I speak to Camilla Wallin her assessment is a touch more nuanced.
“Well, I was pissed off because of people generalising so much”, she says. “Addicts are human beings too. And most of those that come here are careful of situations where they might be arrested by the police or revert to their drug addiction. But we are neither naïve nor stupid. A lonely life makes you stick to your old friends. So more people in treatment mean more people moving around the church. And I can understand if the church staff is afraid if someone who is high on drugs comes into the church. Of course!”
Outside on the pavement Jompa munches on a dry cinnamon bun with vanilla filling. He has been on heroin since he was 20, and after a series of relapses lately he is under orders to come to the clinic every day for his medication.
Jompa says he understands why the church janitor has begun to find syringes.
“I have to drink my methadone in front of the staff. But some people get a couple of bottles to take home, so they can shoot it instead. It also gives a ride quicker. So I have seen people walking directly from here to the church with syringes and shit. I guess they can't stand to wait until they get home, so they shoot their stuff in there instead.”
He walks away towards the railway station.
This afternoon the old gang is still hanging around the waiting room.
Carola Stridh is perkier today. She has crawled out of her jacket and is treating the others to the coconut snowballs left over from the day before.
“Åke” is out on the platform peeing against the train that will shortly be leaving for nearby Hässleholm.
And it will soon be clear that it was premature of the parish’s Bengt Alvland to disregard the group altogether.
“The church has taken a lot of shit from us”, Pia says with a sigh. Shouts and screams and unnecessary things. Lots of people bring their quarrels along to church after having been sent off by the guard here. And I suppose it has happened that the abbess has been chased away when she has tried to tell someone off.”
Pia tugs at her dirty ear lobe.
“With alcohol and pills, when that mixture is made, things can be real nasty. Sometimes I am ashamed on my friends’ account. God forgives, they say, but I suppose you can’t take advantage of that too much.”
Everybody here knows who it was masturbated inside the church.
“Well, yes, Bäckström brought it out in lots of places in the borough”, says Larsa with a laugh. ”It wasn’t that he was keen to show it. He was just a little horny.”
I ask caretaker Göran Kjell, who was an eyewitness to the incident. He identifies Backström as the culprit too.
I ask Bengt Alvland again about how description of events. Why did he not tell the local paper that the old clientele was just as involved as the newcomers?
“Well, I haven’t been digging into these things in that way”, he says. “I have a job to do as well. What we can say for sure is that we have begun to see new faces. And by listing all the incidents we hoped to get the police's permission to employ guards. And so we did. It was a very quick decision on the police side.”
Stepping back for a moment, what of the original actually remains in the article that Ivan Stankovic and the other Macedonians have helped spread so successfully in the USA? The most explosively contentious facts are as follows:
Broken bottles - In the railway station, a few metres from the church, a gang of Swedish drug addicts are hanging around. They admit to partying and making a nuisance in the church a bit too often.
Masturbation - One of them, Backström, pleasured himself in there at least once. He died a couple of years ago.
Syringes - On the other side of the church there is a clinic for heroin addicts who sometimes shoot up with their dose of Methadone inside.
The church silverware - A known addict was caught red-handed as he was trying to slip a silver candelabrum into a plastic bin bag.
Urine - A hard one. Judging from the stench it would seem a fair few people have taken to pissing in the church through the years.
So, the most dramatic incident then, is the one described in Ivan’s article as an attempted kidnapping carried out by a migrant.
In reality it turns out the culprit of the last case is the same person carrying the knife during Lena Bruce’s sermon. Born in the south of Sweden, he is doing a lot better nowadays. He attended church on Christmas Eve and merrily greeted the minister.
Even so, is it not possible there could be others behind the mystery too?
I speak to Göran Svensson, a local policeman in Kristianstad:
“We have deprived areas here as well”, he says. “They are above all Gamlegården and Charlottsborg, where we have problems with young immigrant boys, drug trafficking and also fireworks being fired at emergency service personnel. No use trying to hide that. But regarding the church we are talking serious addicts.”
I ask if the groups overlap at all.
“Of course they can. An immigrant can become a drug addict. But I can say that I don’t know many here with that background who are heavy addicts. A handful, at the most.”
To be sure, I put in a request request to see all police reports on the Holy Trinity Church during the past two years, keeping an eye out for any sign of Muslim. The closest I get is a the search of two individuals, carried out outside the church in July 2016. “2 addict type of guys” it says in the report. “One red sweater. The other African, hoodie.”
The police left them without further proceedings.
But there was another incident as well; the excrement.
“Foreigners should not be blamed for that”, says Carola Stridh at the railway station “Of course there are immigrants in this borough, but here in the town centre it is pretty white. I haven’t seen any gypsies here in a long time, a few beggars sleeping or so, as the case may be in many other Swedish towns. No, it is us, the Swedes.”
Carola says she knows who it was left the dirty present on the floor.
“He was in a psychosis. A lot can happen then. It wasn’t at all about desecrating the church or being rude or something. It’s his brain that's not working. This guy is banned everywhere; from the shelter, from the station. I have been with him to the psychiatric emergency room, they also push him away.”
She gives a faint smile.
“Anyway he is Swedish, living in Kristianstad. I want to add that since that is what we are talking about.”
Pia Jönsson leans on her crutch, thinking.
“Why is it so important to you who did what?”
It is a particularly good question.There will hardly be less shit for caretaker Göran Kjell to hose away whether it was Christian or a Muslim behind it.
In fact, it is perhaps problematic that this article differentiates between the different groups at all.
Minister Lena Bruce has the same worries. Ever since they first saw the rumours flying around the net, the parish has vigorously denied that the troubles have had anything to do with immigration or refugee policies.
But that also means they have to single out other groups.
“Here we have people who have been in the church. And then we were caught up in a discussion where we have been forced to sort out for each and everyone who these people were. What colour was their skin? Did they speak Swedish or not? Were they blonde? Or did they have dark skin – a discussion that actually should not have been necessary to hold.”
Bruce is agitated.
“I have not met with all of those who have been messing about in our church, but I have met some of them. They are not immigrants. They are not Muslims. They are not refugees. They are Swedes by birth, nothing else. That's... that's how it is... I will not budge a millimetre.”
Many people would say that you are covering something up, I point out to her,
“Why would I be lying? Why would I say something that is not true?”
Because you do not dare to tell the truth.
“Holy Moses! That makes me raging crazy, really. I cannot sit here and twist the truth just to please people. To please the population. Listen, now I am really angry.”
Her voice begins to crack.
“I am wondering… does it really matter what I say? Or what you write? No one cares a shit about it, because people have already made up their minds. They believe what they read. And what they want to believe. It makes me angry as a bull. Don’t you accuse me of lying about which people are coming into our church. I know that better than the people sitting in Macedonia. Or in the USA.”
Bruce leans forward and looks straight at me. Her eyes are filled with tears of rage.
Ivan Stankovic lights another cigarette and starts going through the numbers from the night before.
The article performing best for him is based on a two-year old report in a local Texan paper. In it is a quote that, taken out of context, looks convincing. “The Sharia Law is greater than the Constitution, therefore Muslims are ABOVE the law.” In six hours the article has been seen by 16,222 of his followers. 2,322 have clicked on the link leading to his home page. Another smash hit.
This does not mean that Ivan has no qualms about his new occupation.
He thinks about the consequences his article has had in a small community hundreds of miles away where he has never set foot.
”Oh, it is not right, for sure. It's foolish. It's not OK to blame someone for something they haven't done. But how am I to know what is happening in Sweden? I have no idea. I haven’t even had the money to go to Skopje the last five years.”
What are his thoughts about yourself spreading lies and blaming Muslims, I ask.
“Well, what can I say? Of course it’s not good. I have lots of Muslim friends, the neighbouring house here is full of them, I feel sorry for their situation in the world right now. But some fool has written that, not me. I have just found a text and passed it on to others.”
Ivan sweeps over the room with his arm.
“You see how I am living. Everything is broken; there is a draught from the door and from the windows. I want to fix the holes in the wall and paint them, buy a stove that keeps the heat better, be able to drink something else than water here at home.”
He picks up his mobile from beside the ashtray. The phone, a Xiaomi bought from China for around sixty dollars is the fruit of fake new too. It looks as though this is going to be the second consecutive month Ivan will earn more than 600 dollars after tax, hosting fees, and his friend’s share. He gives half of his earnings to his parents in gratitude for being allowed to go on living at home.
As a birthday present his Mum is being given her own phone.
“I’ll show her all the apps and how to set up a profile on Facebook so that she can see what my work is about, I have noticed that she is pretty curious about that.”
He stubs out the cigarette in the ashtray, thinking about what it will be like.
“I think a lot about her smile as she opens the package. That’s why I work.
A runaway dog coming back to his owner after several years.
A gifted girl dazzling the jury in a talent show.
A cartoon where Barack Obama flushes himself down the toilet.
And then an article claiming that Sharia Law is now in force in Irving, Texas.
Michael in Florida loves to share interesting articles with his Facebook friends. He found the article about the church in Kristianstad particularly good because it showed how ungrateful refugees are. ”The same tolerance and love leftists are screeching at us to extend is never expected from the migrants who illegally cross into our countries, live off our benefits, and demand adherence to their religion and values”, the article in Focus News said.
”The Church extended a Christian hand to these Muslims and they took advantage of it, they rely on Christian charity to keep them going”, says Michael. ”I would love to have someone show me that kind of kindness.”
Michael says that he began falling ill when he was in the military. His legs and his back got worse and worse and the dream of being sent to Vietnam died. He is now living on a combination of social security and disability benefit. He has to make do with a little over 800 dollars a month.
“It's by the skin of my teeth that I make it. My legs are getting weaker and weaker, still I've seen one doctor after the other, with cancelled appointments all the time.”
I tell Michael of the methadone clinic in Kristianstad, and about the drug addicts in the railway station. That everyone close to the incidents denies it was Muslims who pissed, defecated and masturbated in the church.
“Don't you think maybe that the people in the Church are saying this just to save face?”, he muses. “We have an expression here in the States: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck – then it's a duck.”
I ask him what he means.
“In this case, more than likely it was in fact the Muslims who were desecrating the church. And I think that the Church people are a bit embarrassed about it and they are trying to blame someone else. To take the heat of the Muslims.”
He reflects for a moment over the phone.
”And it's not just Sweden. I mean, it's scary worldwide. I stand behind Donald Trump for anything he is going to do in this country to rid us of them. As far as the Muslims go... we just need to get rid of them.”
NOTE: The names Larsa Jonsson, Lars “Åke” Åkerman, Slagan, Jompa and Bäckström have been changed.
English translation by Dominic Hinde