UPDATE, Nov 30 at 8.17pm: The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) announced via a press release on Monday afternoon that it is dropping its requirement that private organizations that house refugees be "religion neutral".
"We will not require that those who run overnight offers for us remove religious symbols after all," UDI wrote.
"The past days have seen a lot of questions regarding UDI's rules for running housing locations for asylum seekers and whether these places can have visible religious symbols, for example Christian or Muslim symbols. UDI wishes to stress that we do not know of any asylum seekers who have asked for the symbols to be removed.
ORIGINAL, Nov 30 at 2.27pm: The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) has told facilities scheduled to receive asylum seekers to remove crosses, images of Jesus and other religious symbols, the Christian newspaper Dagen reported.
Several of the sites are Christian community centres and UDI's guideline stating that “rooms offered to asylum seekers must be religion-neutral” has not been greeted warmly by all.
While TV2 reported that several Christian organizations have agreed to remove crosses from their premises, one that will not be doing it is the Evidence of Faith (Troens Bevis) centre in Kvinesdal, which could host 1,000 refugees.
The group's leader, Rune Edvardsen, said that the centre's cross will remain.
“The hall was built by Christians who wanted to spread the word of God. To remove the cross from the hall would be like remove the rose from the Labour Party [Arbeiderpartiet]. It is a thought of no interest,” Edvardsen told Fædrelandsvennen newspaper.
Edvardsen wrote on Facebook that although he would not remove the cross, he would “lovingly […] help the refugees and aid the authorities' lack of space” should UDI request assistance. With room for 1,000 refugees, the Evidence of Faith facility could become one of the largest asylum centres in Norway, although no official decision has yet been made by UDI.
Other Christian groups have agreed to UDI's request.
“I don't think that Muslims care if there is a cross, but it is fine. We will remove it. I'm proud that we can accept refugees. We want to help. We are Christians and we will warmly welcome them,” Jelte Smith, who heads a Norwegian Mission Society (NMS) campground in southern Norway, told Fædrelandsvennen.
UDI has defended its guidelines by saying that they do not specifically target Christianity.
“It is important to specify that this applies to all religious symbols, not just the Christian ones,” press spokeswoman Vibeke Schjem told Dagen.
UDI's response has done little to squash the controversy, however.
In a sharply-worded editorial, Dagen's editor-in-chief said UDI's decision to ban the display of crosses in a country whose very flag contains the Christian symbol was an embarrassment that is being used on social media “as a prime example of the Norwegian authorities' genuflection to Islam”.
“Asylum seekers and migrants have no reservations in passing the Norwegian border despite the cross in our flag being one of the first things they see. They surely wouldn't be hurt by crosses in Christian centres either,” Vebjørn Selbekk wrote.
UDI's decision to house refugees in community centres comes as at least 30,000 people have sought asylum in Norway, a country of 5.2 million, since the beginning of the year.