Timo Soini on Being a Catholic Foreign Minister in Finland

The current year marks the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence, proclaimed on December 6, 1917. The occasion is being proudly celebrated at home and abroad, especially in those countries where it can be supported and promoted by the Finnish diplomatic network under the dynamic leadership of its present foreign minister, Timo Soini.

Other anniversaries bear a direct and close relation to the history of Finland in 2017 – for example, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Revolution, conventionally dated at October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.

Another anniversary that immediately comes to mind is the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima, which started on May 13, 2017. In her apparition of July 13, 1917, she told Sister Lucia that Russia would spread its errors throughout the world.

The independence of Finland, then a province of the tsarist empire, was proclaimed and secured during the interregnum following the demise of the tsarist power and the consolidation of the communist regime in Russia. This independence was not without problems: a civil war between Reds and Whites broke out in Finland, in much the same way as in Russia after October 1917, with the difference being that in Finland, the Reds were defeated.

Moscow managed to recapture most of the provinces and territories of the former tsarist empire, but it was never able to retake Finland, whose heroic resistance (despite a 1-to-100 ratio in military terms) averted the establishment of a communist dictatorship.

These and other topics were the focus of an interview with Minister Soini, a rare example of an outspoken Catholic leader in the Scandinavian political establishment, who in a recent speech to his diplomatic corps did not hesitate to decry the omission of a reference to Europe’s Christian roots in the European Union constitution as “a mistake.” A convert to Roman Catholicism from Lutheranism almost 30 years ago in 1988, Soini’s views are in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church, including opposition to abortion, the redefinition of marriage, and the ordination of women as priests.

A founder of the Finns Party, which he led for twenty years from 1997 until 2017, Soini was able to raise the popularity of the party from 4.1% to 19.1% in just a few years’ time. Following the 2015 election, the Finns Party joined a coalition government, and Timo Soini was appointed deputy prime minister (June 2015-June 2017) and minister of foreign affairs. He stepped down as party chairman in the party congress in June.

Q. 2017 is the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence. Some thoughts and reflections on this important date?

A. This 100-year anniversary is valuable and remarkable for all of us. The road has been rocky, but we are now a nation with high standards of living, an effective  education system, and a good health care system.

The start of the nation was not easy. After the proclamation of independence, there was a civil war, and many lives were lost. But there was a very good healing process – for example, today, actually, not many Finns know or remember on which side their ancestors were. I know personally, but I repeat: not everybody knows which side his grandparents or grand-grandparents were standing for, and this is a good thing.

Thus, now Finland is a relatively safe and good place to live. This celebration year is dear to us and is also opening doors to all the more intense diplomatic activities. Suffice to say that it has been announced that our president will soon meet President Trump in Washington and that the Russian president, Putin, has just been here on visit. I was also in Rome to meet the then-foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni, who is now prime minister, and we have excellent relations with the E.U. countries. I am personally also traveling a lot, visiting foreign nations and increasing our international cooperation as never before.

Q. Finland has been suggested as an ideal neutral ground for a meeting between the pope and Russian patriarch Kirill on European soil. They already met in Cuba, and it remains to be seen whether a papal trip to Moscow will materialize. Would you be prepared to act as a facilitator of this possible meeting on Finnish soil?

A. Traditionally, Finland has always had extremely good relations with Russia, and we have a lot of experience in dealing with our big neighbor. But it ought to be borne in mind that we are no longer fully impartial. Since our E.U. membership, we have decidedly turned to the West, as also shown by the fact that we have acquired the status of NATO enhanced partner, although still not being a full-fledged NATO member. In other words, that situation has changed, and we may be no longer officially regarded as a non-aligned country. Nevertheless, we are obviously more than willing to act as mediator and facilitator, making ourselves available to any demand from whatever state in Europe for a meeting with Russia in order to ease possible tensions, foster dialogue, and ultimately solve problems in a peaceful way.

Q. What is the situation in Finland with regard to E.U.-related problems, such as, for example, the illegal immigration crisis? 

A. Regarding the immigration or migration crisis, or asylum seeking crisis, I think the root causes should be addressed to solve this problem. By “root causes,” I mean the horrible situation in countries like Syria, Iraq, and others. Personally, I think those people who are in real need must be helped. But there are also the so-called economic migrants, who have no grounds to apply for asylum status.

We can see that are two sides. But, for example, my thinking is that if you are registered as a refugee with an officially recognized refugee status, it should be much easier and much more acceptable to take those people, including women and children, to Finland, which is not now the case, since it is usually young men coming throughout Europe. If you are a real refugee, it’s OK.

Although taking people across the continent is not the solution, if people are escaping due to persecution of threats to their lives, they should be helped without exception. And let’s remember that this is also a Christian approach.

Q. And what about the possible problems created by Muslim immigrants, as shown by the spate of attacks around Europe, including Finland?

A. First of all, let us not generalize. Radical and extremist elements are the problem, all over the E.U. and not only in Finland. But they are few in number here. The majority of Muslims are moderate people and do not create any trouble.

But there is a small minority that have joined organizations of the terrorist network, and as far as we know, a hundred Finns, Finnish citizens, joined ISIS and fought with them. Roughly 20 of them were killed, some 40 managed to come back, and the rest – we have no idea where they are. They are the real danger, especially due to the hateful propaganda they spread through social media. The ordinary Muslim people do not pose problems. Then, of course, there are certain behaviors and practices that Finnish society cannot accept, such as female genital mutilation and the fact that fathers see their children as their property and therefore that, for example, they can decide whom they have to marry.

The violent acts in Turku show that terrorism is also in Finland. With solemn thoughts, I feel speechless sadness. Our century-old country has been built on the foundation of law. Finland is a rule-of-law state. Only through the rule of law will we defeat terrorism, and in this way, we will surely defeat it.

Q. Do you think freedom of speech should include the freedom to mock religious convictions?

A. Although the Western world has made it possible for anybody to criticize everything including religion and also Islam, one should not ridicule or insult people’s religious convictions. I am a Catholic conservative, and of course, I do not mock, for example, the Catholic Church or the Lutheran Church, and so forth, but in a free society, you have freedom of speech, and if you want to criticize, you do criticize. The same goes for Islam. It is a good behavior not to ridicule other people’s beliefs, but if they are trying to produce that kind of society in Finland, then they should know that it does not belong here.

You cannot live according to your own rules and religious beliefs. For example, I am against abortion, but when the Finnish legislation allows it, I cannot prohibit that it happens. But I don’t accept it, and that is the situation. I can work, I can use my democratic rights and promote my own agenda to change the situation, but I cannot say that because this is my belief, the other people must agree or comply with it. But my opinion is still there, and I want to be very clear on this.

Q. On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran reformation, the pope went to Sweden late last year, and a few months after, the bishop of Stockholm was appointed by the pope as the first cardinal in Scandinavian Christian history. What do you think?

A. I think that it is excellent, very good. Hopefully, in the future, we may even have a Finnish cardinal. Roughly a year ago, I was in Rome for the ordination into the Catholic priesthood of my good friend, Father Oskari Juurikkala, who is a member of Opus Dei and used to be my assistant. So my special adviser Riikka will never be a cardinal, but Oskari could be.

Apart from jokes, although in Finland Catholics are a relatively small minority, we have to acknowledge that it is a growing one under the leadership of our current bishop of Helsinki, Msgr. Teemu Sippo. They are numbering some 14,000 now, but when I joined the Catholic Church in 1988, they were about 5,000. So it is increasing, not in big numbers, but there are conversions, and people are moving here and getting married and so forth. We have also to consider that Msgr. Sippo is the first Finnish-born Roman Catholic Bishop since the bishop of Turku Arvid Kurck (1464-1522), who is considered to be the last truly Catholic bishop of Finland, since his successors started to promote the [Protestant] Reformation. And why not? Also Msgr. Sippo may well be soon a candidate to the cardinalate for his excellent work. So I would say we are on the right path.

Q. Can you name some specific aspects of the Catholic faith that you particularly cherish and appreciate?

A. The immutable nature and therefore stability of its basic tenets. Thus, what you wrote years ago after our previous meetings applies also today, since my thinking has not changed and my ideas are the same. There are those who say that I should also change, as many do nowadays, but I won’t.

Something you follow when you are part of the Catholic audience interested in Church affairs is what kind of challenges and what kind of answers the Church has worldwide, and the thing I am extremely happy about with the Catholic Church is that they are not paying lip service. They are not giving the politicians, the society, and the media what they want. They say, This is what we believe; these are our positions on marriage, the priesthood, homosexuality. These are our principles for sacraments, and so forth. That is the way it should be.

We as people make mistakes, and I am aware that horrible things have happened in the Church. After all, if I were Satan, I would go as near the altar as possible. But because of some rotten tomatoes, which can be found everywhere and not only in the Church, there is no justification to say the whole Church is rotten and the Gospel is nonsense.

Here in Finland, I try to be polite, but I have to say that we are not getting more people to the Church by trying to be nice, by adopting a compromising and accommodating attitude and ultimately saying “I agree with you.” No, I don’t agree. This is the Gospel. Take it or leave it.

Q. How does your Catholic vision impact your political activity, now that you are a senior government official and no longer a party leader?

A. It is easier now, precisely because I am no longer a party leader. When I was a party leader, everything I said was immediately identified as the official party line, even if this was not the case.

But the fact that a Catholic conservative can be a foreign minister and party leader in a Lutheran country tells you something beautiful of Finnish tolerance. I will never cease praising my Finnish people for the fact that they do not neglect or snub me because of what I am due to my religious beliefs.

I love my job very much. I find it very interesting, and it’s a real honor and privilege to have been appointed and serve my country as foreign minister. In fact, now I am much more free to say aloud what I think because it’s not the party line, as I said. Of course, if I am a foreign minister of Finland and I say certain things aloud, somebody in the government might raise his eyebrows and object, but I don’t care about it, because I can always claim that this is my personal opinion as a human being and not the government’s official stance or viewpoint.

Q. If you continue your political career, you may well aspire to the premiership and then even to become Finland’s president…

A. To put it frankly, I have not decided whether I am going to run in the next election. I don’t know, but perhaps it is not time to retire yet. In the next presidential election, I’m not running; that is for sure.

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