In Morocco, Pope warns Catholics against proselytism

The pope sought to encourage greater interactions between Christians and Muslims in Morocco.
Sunday 31/03/2019
Pope Francis (C) celebrates a mass at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Sports Centre in the Moroccan capital Rabat on March 31. (AFP)
Pope Francis (C) celebrates a mass at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Sports Centre in the Moroccan capital Rabat on March 31. (AFP)

RABAT – Pope Francis on Sunday warned Catholics in Morocco against trying to convert others to boost their small numbers, during a rare visit by a pontiff to the North African country.

Speaking in Rabat’s cathedral on his second day in the Moroccan capital, Francis insisted trying to convert people to one’s own belief “always leads to an impasse”.

“Please, no proselytism!” he told an audience of around 400, who greeted the pope’s arrival by ululating and applauding, while hundreds more gathered outside the cathedral.

Christians are a tiny minority in Morocco where 99 percent of the population is Muslim, with sub-Saharan Africans making up a large part of the country’s 30,000-strong Catholic community.

Islam is the state religion and authorities are keen to stress the country’s “religious tolerance” which allows Christians and Jews to worship freely.

In Moroccans, apostasy is socially frowned upon and proselytising is criminalised.

“I protect Moroccan Jews as well as Christians from other countries, who are living in Morocco,” King Mohammed VI told crowds on Saturday, following the pontiff’s arrival.

Francis is the first pontiff to visit the North African country since John Paul II in 1985 and the cathedral had been repainted for the occasion.

The need to support migrants was mentioned again Sunday by Francis, who has made the issue a focal point of his papacy.

On Saturday he visited migrants at a Caritas charity centre, where the pope criticised “collective expulsions” and said ways for migrants to regularise their status should be encouraged.

Morocco says it has a “humanistic” approach to migration and rejects allegations by rights groups of “brutal arrest campaigns” and “forced displacement” to the country’s southern border.

Earlier on Sunday, Francis visited a social centre run by nuns and volunteers near Rabat, including a health centre where he met with unwell children.

The previous day he visited an institute which hosts around 1,300 trainee imams and preachers.

There they heard from a French and a Nigerian student of the institute, which teaches “moderate Islam” and is backed by the king.

The Moroccan monarch also welcomed Francis to the royal palace, where the two addressed the “sacred character of Jerusalem” in a joint declaration.

The city should be a “symbol of peaceful coexistence” for Christians, Jews and Muslims, they said in a statement released by the Vatican.

“The specific multi-religious character, the spiritual dimension and the particular cultural identity of Jerusalem… must be protected and promoted,” said the text, which was jointly signed at Rabat’s royal palace.

The Moroccan king chairs a committee created by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to safeguard and restore Jerusalem’s religious, cultural and architectural heritage.

Jerusalem’s status is perhaps the most sensitive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel sees the entire city as its capital, while the Palestinians want the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.

US President Donald Trump sparked anger across the Muslim world when he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.

Francis sought to encourage greater interactions between Christians and Muslims in Morocco, telling his flock that showing the country’s Muslim majority they are part of the same human family will help stamp out extremism.

Francis has stressed a message of Christian-Muslim fraternity during his first trip to Morocco, a majority Muslim nation of 36 million. 

After reaching out Saturday to Morocco’s Sunni majority and its growing community of migrants from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Francis turned his attention Sunday to the country’s Christian minority. His aim was to highlight their constructive presence in Moroccan life.

(AW and agencies)