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Are Christians in Morocco emerging from shadows of the past?

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

It is still unclear when the so-called phenomenon of Moroccans converting to Christianity began to come out of the closet. There is no official statistic available on the number of Christian converts in Morocco even though the US State Department estimates the number to be between 2,000 and 6,000. More importantly, it is difficult to identify the reasons that drive them to convert in the first place.

Amid this hazy scenario, one thing seems certain: Moroccan Christians are emerging from the shadows of the past. They are beginning to demand their rights and criticize discriminatory practices.

The establishment of the National Coalition of Moroccan Christians was one of the major steps taken by the converts as they decided to stop practicing their faith in a clandestine manner as they had been doing for years.

Another first case of its kind was the coalition’s decision to officially address the National Human Rights Council. “Representatives of the coalition met with a delegation from the council and submitted a folder that contains a series of our demands,” said coalition spokesman Mustafa Susi. “Those included freedom of worship and the official recognition of churches in the country.”

The demands, Susi added, included the right to have their own cemeteries and to use Christian names for their children. “The group also asked for the right to decide if they want their children to take Islamic religion class in school.” Susi evaluated the meeting as “positive” as it constitutes the first step toward communication between Christian converts and the Moroccan government. The council, however, made no promises.

Moroccan Christians also launched a YouTube channel called Moroccan and Christian and which is described as “a channel that includes Moroccan Christians of all types as they explain their faith, answer questions about their patriotism, and refute misconceptions about them.”

Right to choose one’s faith

Human rights activist and minister of justice and liberties Mustafa Ramid said that people have the right to choose their faith and that this right is granted by Islam.

“We cannot prosecute those who choose to change their faith,” he said, addressing members of the Justice, Legislation, and Human Committee at the Moroccan parliament. “The problem is political rather than religious or legal because we are worried that we would turn into camps and that this will start dividing our society.”

Ramid also revealed his role in overturning a jail sentence against a Moroccan youth named Mohamed al-Baladi who was charged with proselytizing. “He was sentenced to two and half years under article 220 of the penal code but investigations proved that he was not guilty and I revealed that to the prosecution. He only converted to Christianity.”

Moroccan Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi and US ambassador to Morocco Margaret Tutwiler attend an ecumenical service bringing together Morocco’s Muslims, Jews and Christians 16 September 2001 at the cathedral of Rabat in memory of the victims of the 11 September attack in US. (AFP)
Moroccan Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi and US ambassador to Morocco Margaret Tutwiler attend an ecumenical service bringing together Morocco’s Muslims, Jews and Christians 16 September 2001 at the cathedral of Rabat in memory of the victims of the 11 September attack in US. (AFP)

According to article 220 of the Moroccan penal code, anyone who “undermines a Muslim’s faith” is sentenced to 6 months to 3 years in jail. This law, however, applies technically to people involved in missionary activities. The law in some cases applied to charity organizations that were accused of using their humanitarian work for proselytizing purpose, the children’s home called Village of Hope, closed in 2014, being the most prominent example.

Rights activist and member of the National Coalition of Moroccan Christians Zuheir al-Dukhali said that they have no political agenda as the state might fear and their existence is in no way a threat to national security.

“We only want the constitution to be modified in a way that explicitly grants all Moroccans the freedom to choose their faith,” he said. Dukali said that the state eyes Christians with suspicion especially after authorities arrested a group of Christians distributing books about Christianity in remote villages.

“Ever since, there has been an assumption that Christians serve a foreign agenda, but now the situation is different since no one is trying to convert anyone and we do not aim at spreading Christianity in Morocco.” Dukali also noted that if the state does not recognize the Christian minority, this will encourage extremists to target them. “This is not the case with the Jewish minority which is recognized by the state, which allows Jews to practice their faith freely.”

Opening up on the issue

Political analyst Mustafa al-Sehimi argued that Morocco is becoming more open on the issue of Christians and this was demonstrated in the meeting between representatives of National Coalition of Moroccan Christians and the National Human Rights Council.

“There is also a tendency toward distinguishing between missionary activities in which needy people are sometimes taken advantage of on one hand and an individual’s freedom to choose his or her faith on the other hand,” he said.

Sehimi, however, added that while the law only punishes proselytization, converts to Christianity are punished in other ways. “Converts lose their right to the custody and guardianship of their children and they can neither inherit nor bequeath their wealth to non-Muslims, which means they become civilly non-existent.”

Sehimi added that the first draft of the 2011 Moroccan constitution contained the phrase “religious freedom” which faced objections by the Islamist Justice and Development that threatened to vote against it. “In 2011, the atmosphere was tense enough and it was not a good idea to add more tension so we ended up with ‘the freedom of practicing religious rituals.’”

According to article 3 of the 2011 Moroccan constitution, “Islam is the religion of the state and the state grants the freedom of practicing religious rituals.”