Opinion: Dark days for Christians in Morocco

PARIS, France — The days of Christians in Morocco may be numbered.

A wave of so-called “proselytizing,” that has reportedly converted tens of thousands Muslims into Christians, has prompted authorities to clamp down on Christian residents.

Over the last several weeks, more than 50 Christians from the U.S., the Netherlands and South Korea have been deported by Moroccan authorities. Some long-time Christian residents were not allowed back in the country.

The most high-profile operation took place in an orphanage called the Village of Hope, when 16 foreign Christians running the center were told they had two hours to pack up and leave the country. Kids they cared for cried, not understanding why their “parents” were being taken away.

The orphanage had been operating for 10 years without any problems. What changed? Authorities appeared to be reacting to claims made by an extremist imam, who accused the orphanage of not respecting adoption procedures.

In most deportation cases, authorities don't even give a reason, though it's usually clear that those being deported are suspected of proselytizing. In fact, the proselytizing charge applies only to non-Muslims.

Even though Morocco is a much more tolerant country than, say, Saudi Arabia in terms of freedom of religion, it nonetheless imprisons anyone trying to “shake the faith of Muslims” for up to three years.

The timing of this clampdown may prove to taint Morocco's image for some time to come, given that it took place during the first summit between the European Union and Morocco pertaining to a renewal of ties, and also while U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, Sam Kaplan, was preparing his annual human rights report. Unsurprisingly the report stated that the embassy was “disheartened and distressed” about the expulsions.

A similar, though smaller, clampdown took place in 2005. The Moroccan press warned of the “greatest danger”: American evangelical missionaries allegedly going around the country, from major cities such as Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech and Fez to remote areas in the mountains or the countryside, to convert Muslims.

Why is Morocco developing a harder stance toward Christians? King Mohamed VI is responding to the pressure of not only Islamists but also from other conservative parties.

Already in 2005, Abdelhamid Aouad, a nationalist member of parliament, raised the issue on the floor of parliament, asking the minister of Islamic affairs what the government was doing about the massive evangelization underway. Repeatedly the minister told him that there was nothing to worry about.

Aouad declared, without proof, that the evangelists’ ultimate goal was to convert 10 percent of the Moroccan population by 2020. An Islamist center mentioned that 150,000 Moroccans had been converted by Christian missionaries. Both unfounded allegations are clearly being used as scare tactics to shape public opinion.

Hard statistics are tough to get, but there are allegedly between 150 to 800 missionaries and from 7,000 to 58,000 converts in Morocco. The discrepancy in numbers can be explained by the fact that missionaries and converts have had to go underground in order to stay protected.

The regime has devoted time and energy to fight off this supposed wave of conversion through for example a zero tolerance policy and the creation of a cell devoted to monitoring the phenomenon.

While the plight of foreign Christians is bad, the one of Moroccan Christians is even worse. The Moroccan constitution guarantees the free practice of all religions and King Mohamed VI was crystal clear when he stated that people of the three religions — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — can freely and safely express themselves in the kingdom.

But Moroccan Christians are banned from entering official churches and have to pray in hiding. They also have to be married and buried under Muslim law.

The weekly Moroccan magazine Telquel rightly pointed out: “Do we have the right in a country that calls itself modern to reduce to silence thousands of Moroccans?”

Morocco's tolerant image suffers. The regime's tough policy on Christians is petty politics — and it plays right into the hands of Islamists who advocate an end to the semi-freedom of religion in place in Morocco. This turnaround is not worthy of the Moroccan kingdom.

Olivier Guitta is a security and geopolitical consultant based in Europe. You can view his latest work at www.thecroissant.com/about.html