Freedom constrained by tradition (2/6/2011)

Many countries around the world have “religious freedom,” yet that freedom does not have the same definition as it does in the United States.

The North African country of Morocco is one example.

Morocco is a constitutional monarchy in which King Mohammed VI is the head of both government and religion. The Moroccan Constitution says the country is an Islamic state that also grants the right for citizens to worship freely.

“The margin of religious freedom in Morocco is narrow. People cannot choose their religions,” says Mohsine El Ahmadi, professor of sociology at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech.

“Since you are born a Muslim, you must remain a Muslim,” continues El Ahmadi in reference to the culture of Morocco. “You cannot change your religious affiliation. If you do, you have to keep it secret.”

Citizens are entitled to their own opinions; however, the law prevents anyone from shaking the faith of the majority or proselytizing — sharing personal beliefs. According to El Ahmadi, the Constitution of Morocco is ambiguous and the Islamic Law [Sharia], which also plays a major role in the government, has many interpretations.

That same ambiguity causes problems for Christians within the country, says El Ahmadi. “There is no constraint on Christians coming or living in Morocco. But for Moroccans who converted to Christianity, they cannot show their new religion publicly.”

Conversion from Islam and proselytizing are frowned upon in Morocco for cultural, political and religious reasons.

One expatriate, who will be called Casey for security purposes, was in Morocco during the waves of foreign worker deportation in early 2010. Though Casey’s Moroccan friends knew he/she was a Christian, they said Casey was crazy for his/her beliefs and that Casey should seek professional help.

“It’s an honor and shame-based society,” says Casey. “So if your family finds out [that you convert to Christianity], then you’re shaming your family. And that is one of the worst things you can do.”

For that reason, continues Casey, Moroccans will tell you that there are no Moroccan Christians. “They are 100 percent convinced that there are none. The locals themselves would not admit that there are Christians because that would be shameful to their country and for Islam.”

Jean Luc Blanc, a French pastor with DEFAP, an evangelical missions service based in France, was the pastor of the Evangelical Church in Morocco from 2001 to 2010. Blanc agrees that much of the “persecution” against Christians in the country occurs within families and friendships.

“For Moroccans, and for all Muslims, it’s natural to be a Muslim,” says Blanc. “So when you are a Muslim, your nature is how [Allah] wants you to be. So how do you change? To change, for them, would mean to do something against nature. That’s why it’s difficult to change your religion once you are Muslim.”

According to Blanc, there are underlying historical and political reasons. He says that the government of Morocco wants to keep the peace and stability of the citizens within the country, namely between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Therefore, laws of proselytizing and conversion apply to all religions, not just Christianity.

Proselytizing is a fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity. Many surahs (verses) in the Sharia say that religion is a personal matter that only concerns the believer and his god, says El Ahmadi. The Bible tells Christians to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world. Because of this difference, there is a need to prevent clashes between religions, says Blanc.

While some, like Blanc and El Ahmadi, say that religious persecution is virtually non-existent in Morocco, International Christian Concern and the U.S. government tell it differently. In fact, at least five missions organizations or ministers would not speak of the state of Christianity in Morocco because of possible repercussions.

In 2010, more than 100 foreign workers, including Americans, were deported from Morocco without due process of law. The Moroccan government said it did not violate its laws, but the U.S. government stepped in. In a statement by Representative Frank Wolf at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) Hearing on Human Rights and Religious Freedom in June 2010, the U.S. threatened to withhold $697.5 million in funding from Morocco for not abiding by principles of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an aid organization that provides grants to countries to help reduce poverty and build economic growth.

Immediately after the deportations, many Christians in Morocco went underground for fear of backlash from the Moroccan government, says Aidan Clay, ICC regional manager for the Middle East. Since then, the foreign press and foreign governments have pressured the Moroccan government to halt the deportations.

“To this day, the US government tries to keep a close eye on it,” says Clay. And though Christians still keep a low profile, many worship services have started again.

While the U.S. government is monitoring the situation for American and foreign missionaries, it has been reluctant to step in on behalf of Moroccan Christians because it is a “religious issue,” says Logan Maurer, ICC regional manager for Southeast Asia.

Maurer says there have been numerous incidents concerning the Moroccan government tracking or following Moroccan Christians. One example is Rachid, a native of Morocco who was forced to leave the country after the Moroccan government interrogated and threatened him.

In his testimony at the TLHRC hearing, Rachid said, “What forced me out are still the realities Christians and other non-Muslims must face every day. The fact is, religious freedom in Morocco simply does not exist. The West is presented with a façade that is now exposed. However, Morocco will continue to ensure that all other religions are hidden, suppressed and eliminated.”

The future of Christianity in Morocco is uncertain, particularly because of the recent unrest in the North African region. Maurer says that the uprisings and protests could cause positive or negative effects for Moroccan Christians.

“It’s both an opportunity or a crisis, because it may come about that Christians have more freedom, but it may come out as the opposite.”

(Originally published here for UPIU, Feb. 6, 2011; Abridged version published here for International Christian Concern and, Feb. 11, 2011 )