Evangelical missionaries in Morocco back in the limelight

Rabat, Morocco - The Marrakech police department has recently seized documents which confirm the existence of a secret evangelical group in the southern city, who has been trying to convert many Moroccans to Christianity, reported last week the Moroccan daily al-Ittihad al-Ichtiraki.

The documents which were seized in an apartment of an alleged foreign missionary, who suddenly disappeared, also revealed the existence of secret spiritual schools to teach Moroccans the concepts of Christianity.

According to the documents, the schools are concentrated in specific neighborhoods in the centre of Marrakech, mainly in Guéliz, and al-Inara.

Residents of the building, where the alleged missionary was living, in Yacoub al-Mansour neighbourhood, said that he disappeared immediately after finding out that two security agents were coming to interview him.

According to al-Ittihad al-Ichtiraki, residents of the building said that the missionary used to receive a number of Moroccans regularly in his apartment where he lived with his wife and two daughters.

Spiritual schools in Marrakech!

The newspaper said that these meeting might be related to the council of Evangelical groups in Marrakech.

Among the documents found, was a constitution of the city council of the Evangelical groups, which included the creation goals of the council, its principles, and the conditions of the membership, written in both Arabic and French.

The documents also included application forms to a school of spiritual teaching, along with letters from other foreigners in charge of supervising the missionary operation in Marrakech.

Beside this, a list of secret spiritual places and the names of Moroccans who are running them was also discovered. Information magazines about a satellite channel designed for MENA Christians (SAT 7) are also among the seized documents.

The council of the Evangelical groups aims at opening dialogue with similar groups that exist in the city for consulting, problem solving and group praying for the city, said al-Ittihad al-Ichtiraki.

The paper reported that the meetings of this council are usually held once a fortnight in the house of one of the members as a temporary address.

The partisan Socialist daily also cited MAD 4,000 as an amount of money used to buy some necessary things for missionary work, according to one of the letters found in the foreigner's apartment.

Concerning the application forms for the spiritual school, the documents seized showed subscription files in yellow on which was written an expression from the bible.

The subscription dossier showed detailed information on the subscription conditions, tuition fees, training programme, and a timetable for waking up, having breakfast, and prayers.

The school requires that the students should have already been members of a local church in the city. The school's application forms indicated that the education tuition fees are MAD 500, and included detailed information on the student's social background along with the date of his conversion to Christianity and the local church he/she goes to.

The missionary's personal documents, left in his apartment, showed he was taking Darija courses in one of the language centres in Moulay Abdullah Boulevard.

“This information only indicates that the evangelical group movement is spreading in Morocco and is highly organized,” stressed the paper.

Pastor accused of proselytizing expelled from Morocco last year

The debate on Moroccan Christians reached its peak last year when the Moroccan authorities deported a South African pastor, and interrogated a few prominent local believers.

Pastor Deon Malan left Morocco in March 2005 after a 5 day notice from the Moroccan authorities. Malan was accused of proselytizing.

Six students at the Mohamed V high school in Marrakech resorted to the pastor for explanation about some concepts in the bible for their school presentation on the religions of the book.

However, suspicion fell on the Marrakech-based pastor after the Moroccan daily Attajdid accused him of trying to convert these students to Christianity.

This was not the first time Attajdid's articles have stirred up such a controversy. In 2003, shortly before the Casablanca attacks, a group of hard rockers were thrown into prison following an article accusing them of being Satanists. Last year, another article from the same newspaper triggered a wave of protests by claiming that the tsunami in Asia was divine punishment.

After the Attajdid article, a special reportage by the Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire, published last March, revealed the existence of a number of “clandestine” protestant missionaries on a converting mission to Morocco, triggering a wave of similar articles in the Moroccan press.

Moroccan media criticized by the Evangelical Church of Morocco

Jean-Luc Blanc, pastor of the Evangelical Church of Morocco, criticised the media's handling of the issue of conversions to Protestantism in an article published last March in the Moroccan daily Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb.

The pastor accused the press of making “amalgams between the US foreign policy and the Protestant Church,” and “amplifying real but insignificant phenomena.”

He added that the main role of the Church in Morocco is to help the Protestant Christians living in Morocco, among them many Sub Saharans studying in the Kingdom.

Blanc also criticised “a rumour quickly exploited by the media, which stated that massive numbers of Moroccans converted to Christianity under the influence of Anglo-Saxon, protestant missionaries.”

The cover story of Le Journal Hebdomadaire on Moroccan Christians described an active conversion campaign led by Protestant missionaries – many of them from the US - who went as far as distributing “conversion kits” to Moroccans living abroad on the way back to Morocco for the holidays.

The article also explained that these missionaries were backed by powerful messianic churches belonging to the American Bible Belt, close to George W. Bush.

In May, a Rock'n'Roll festival was held in Marrakech despite controversy. The festival raised fears among Morocco's Muslims and Christians alike that it would be a proselytizing campaign under the rock-and-roll culture. Christians and Muslims warned that “the festival is a pretext by the American Evangelical Church to get a foothold in Morocco.” However, the fears were denied by Moroccan officials.

Moroccan newspapers released different figures of Moroccan Muslims who converted to Protestantism. While some say that there are as little as 800 Moroccan Protestants and 150 missionaries in the country, others even exaggerated by saying there are 40,000 converts and 200 to 300 missionaries.

Morocco denies any evangelic attack against the country

Questioned by the Istiqlal MP Abdelhamid Aouad last May about the ‘phenomenon of Moroccans converting to Christianity', Minister of Habous and Islamic Affairs Ahmed Taoufiq said “that there is no evangelic attack against Morocco”.

He stated that the activities of the foreign expatriates in Morocco are known, adding that the Christian pastors recognized by the Moroccan State are those who are working in churches of different faiths to orient and help their Christian brothers living or visiting Morocco.

International Report highlights Moroccan converts

The Moroccan Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice, but, there are some restrictions, said a 2004 International Religious Freedom report.

The Constitution provides that Islam is the official state religion; however, non-Muslim communities openly practice their faith, it added.

The report noted that the generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, converts to Christianity generally face social ostracism.

The report also stated that the foreign Christian community (Roman Catholic and Protestant) consists of 5,000 practicing members, although estimates of Christians residing in the country at any particular time range up to 25,000, including Moroccan citizens who have converted to Christianity.

The document referred to the English-speaking church group, which received in 2004 the status of a nonprofit association as the "Protestant Church of Rabat." The report cited other registered churches and associations in Morocco including the Evangelical, Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, French Protestant, and Anglican churches.

“While the Rabat Protestant Church and other minority religious groups have been operating unfettered by government authorities since the 1970s, registration allows the groups to make financial transactions and other plans as private associations and legal entities,” said the report.

Proselytizing illegal in Morocco

Proselytizing is forbidden in Morocco. Any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert is illegal. According to Article 220 of the Moroccan Penal Code, any attempt to stop one or more persons from the exercise of their religious beliefs or from attendance at religious services is unlawful and may be punished by 3-6 months' imprisonment and a fine of $10 to $50 (115 to 575 dirhams). The article applies the same penalty to "anyone who employs incitements to shake the faith of a Muslim or to convert him to another religion."

Foreign missionaries either limit their proselytizing to non-Muslims or conduct their work quietly. The Government has cited the prohibition on conversion in the penal code in most cases in which courts expelled foreign missionaries.

According to the International Religious Freedom report, authorities detained in May and expelled seven foreign missionaries, including four Americans, for distributing Christian materials in Marrakech's main square. Some missionaries have been questioned by authorities or have not been granted a "temporary residence permit" enabling them to remain in the country on a long-term basis.

Moroccan Christians pray clandestinely

The subject of Moroccan Christians is still stirring controversy. More recently, the Moroccan daily, Maroc Soir, published an article titled “Moroccan Christians pray clandestinely”. The said article, which was published during the Christmas celebration, discussed the issue of Moroccans converting to Christianity and cited examples of some Moroccans who attended the Christmas service. The article also cited examples of Moroccans who talked about their new life as Christians and how they came to be so.

Moroccan citizens who convert to Christianity and other religions generally face social ostracism, and a small number of converts have faced short periods of questioning or detention by authorities for proselytizing.

Jean-Luc Blanc, pastor of the Evangelical Church of Morocco told Maroc Soir that the estimated 800 Moroccan Christians are mainly Protestant, representing 0,0025% of the population. He added that they don't usually attend the church because they fear to be harassed by the authorities.

He stressed that Evangelical Church of Morocco, like the Catholic Church, has an agreement with the Moroccan State, which clearly forbids proselytizing.

A woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the French-language daily that “many times we were harassed by the police. We can't go to the church because it is only reserved for foreigners.”

Luke Gospel in Darija

While surfing the web, one can come across some websites dedicated to Moroccan Christians. There is even a Moroccan Arabic version of the bible circulating on the net.

The Gospel of Luke Moroccan Arabic version is advertised in a website dedicated to Moroccan Christians of Malaga, Spain. The Gospel according to Luke is the first part of a two-volume work that continues the biblical history of God's dealings with humanity found in the Old Testament, showing how God's promises to Israel have been fulfilled in Jesus and how the salvation promised to Israel and accomplished by Jesus has been extended to the Gentiles.

These new Moroccan converts, aged between 18 and 34, are very discrete. They don't usually go to the church for fear of stigmatization. They prefer to practice in their homes silently.

Jean-Luc Blanc told the daily that most of them converted during their stay in Europe or the US. These Moroccans who left Islam for Christianity refuse to accept the idea of being apostates and affirm having discovered a new faith.

The translation of the bible into Darija only proves that the phenomenon is growing in Morocco.