Pope Francis and the Moroccan exception

The papal visit was an occasion to highlight the importance of Morocco’s concrete actions, including the spread of moderate Islam in Africa and elsewhere.
Sunday 07/04/2019
Emotional trip. Pope Francis (C-L) and King Mohammed VI of Morocco (C-R) descend stairs at the Tour Hassan square in Rabat, March 30.     (AFP)
Emotional trip. Pope Francis (C-L) and King Mohammed VI of Morocco (C-R) descend stairs at the Tour Hassan square in Rabat, March 30. (AFP)

Nothing happens by chance, including the visit of the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, to Morocco.

Rabat was Pope Francis’s second Arab stop in two months. He visited the United Arab Emirates in February. In Abu Dhabi, the pontiff met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a leading figure in propagating moderation, openness and tolerance, and with al-Azhar University Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, with whom the pope signed the “Document on Human Fraternity.”

There was no better place than the Moroccan stop to confirm that the world was not hostage to extremism and that there are men and women of substance hard at work, and not just with words, at spreading openness, moderation and tolerance in the Muslim world, in addition to fighting terrorism.

Pope Francis’s visit to the commander of the faithful, Moroccan King Mohammed VI, was the embodiment of a common front that includes representatives of all monotheistic religions working towards the elimination of terrorism in all of its forms and regardless of its sources.

Terrorism is not linked to Islam except in the minds of ignorant and racist individuals who refuse to acknowledge the tragedy that occurred a few weeks ago in New Zealand. From this point of view, it was only natural that the pontiff and King Mohammed VI introduce an appeal to preserve Jerusalem as a “common heritage” of the three monotheistic religions, in a document signed in Rabat.

The visit of the pope to Morocco was a testament to King Mohammed VI’s courage in using daring discourse that is befitting the spirit of the times as only a few can do. This is because he is the king of Morocco, a country with deep civilisational roots, and the commander of the believers at the same time.

Addressing Francis in Rabat, King Mohammed VI said: “We were keen on having its (the visit’s) timing and location express the event’s profound symbolism, historic importance and civilisational reach. The historic site, which cradles our meeting today, combines the meanings of openness, reaching out to the other and cross-cultural enrichment and is, in itself, a symbol of balance and harmony.

“It was deliberately set up at the confluence of Bou Regreg River and the Atlantic Ocean and on the same axis, extending from Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech to the Giralda in Seville, forming thus a spiritual, architectural and cultural link between Africa and Europe.

“We wanted your visit to Morocco to coincide with the month of Rajab, a month that had witnessed one of the most symbolic developments in the history of Islam and Christianity, when Muslims left Mecca, by order of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, to escape persecution and sought refuge with An-Najashi, the Christian king of Abyssinia. That was the first welcome and the first mutual acquaintance between Islam and Christianity.

“Here we are today celebrating this mutual acquaintance, for the sake of the future and that of the coming generations,” he continued. “Your visit to Morocco comes in a context where the international community, as well as all believers, is facing many challenges. These are challenges of a new kind and their danger derives from their betrayal of the divine message, corrupting it and ill-using it by following the policy of rejecting the other, on top of other religious doctrines.

“In a world searching for its references and constants, the kingdom of Morocco has always endeavoured to explicitly highlight and cling to the bonds of brotherhood that unite the sons of Abraham, peace be upon him, as the cornerstone of the rich and multicultural civilisation of Morocco. The cohesion reigning among all Moroccans, regardless of the differences in their beliefs, is a shining example in this area.

“This cohesion is a daily reality in Morocco and this is reflected in mosques, churches and temples existing next to each other in the cities of the kingdom.

“As the king of Morocco and Amir al-Mu’minin, I am entrusted with ensuring the freedom to practice religious rites. In that role, I am the emir of all believers, regardless of their faith.

“As such, I cannot talk about the land of Islam as if there were no non-Muslims here. I am the guarantor of the freedom to practice heavenly religions. I am entrusted with the protection of Moroccan Jews and foreign Christians living in Morocco. We are constantly pursuing whatever pleases God, beyond our silent and explicit prayers and beyond our beliefs and the inner peace they provide, so that our religions would remain perfect bridges and that the teachings and mission of Islam would remain an eternal beacon.”

King Mohammed VI’s speech was bold beyond words. It was very far from the usual big-sounding words and hollow slogans that characterised the speeches of most Arab leaders in the past 50 years. He straightforwardly addressed the problems and did not limit himself to just talking about tolerance. There exist other things beyond tolerance between people and between religions.

The Moroccan monarch said it frankly: “It is clear, however, that dialogue between the heavenly religions is not enough in today’s reality. At a time when lifestyles are undergoing major transformations everywhere and in all areas, interfaith dialogue should also evolve and renew itself. The dialogue based on ‘tolerance’ took quite some time but did not reach its goals.

“The three heavenly religions did not create space for ‘tolerance’ between each other, neither as a compulsory choice because it is our fate nor by choice out of consideration for each other. In countering extremism in all of its forms, the solution would be neither military nor financial. The solution lies in one thing: education.

“If I insist on education, it is because I want to condemn ignorance. What threaten our civilisations are Manichean approaches and rejection of the other. It has never been religion. So today, in my capacity of commander of the faithful, I call to give religion anew the place it deserves in the field of education.”

Francis was the second pontiff, after Pope John Paul II, to visit Morocco since 1985. King Mohammed VI gave this latest visit a different practical dimension related to Morocco’s experience in, among other aspects, its humane and civilised treatment of refugees in the kingdom.

The papal visit was an occasion to highlight the importance of Morocco’s concrete actions on various levels, including the spread of moderate Islam in Africa and elsewhere through the institute set up by the king in Rabat for the training of imams and religious counsellors.

Morocco’s relations with African and European countries are not limited to bilateral interests but go beyond that to what is much more important. Morocco is keenly interested in preserving Islam and protecting it from those who want to invest in “ignorance.” King Mohammed VI put it succinctly when he said: “It is time to reject the exploitation of religion as a pretext by the ignorant.”

Pope Francis went to Morocco to confirm a Moroccan exception. This exception is based on the modernisation of state institutions in an ancient kingdom with deep historical roots on the one hand and with a rare resource called the moderate citizen who is open to the world and onto the other, regardless of religion, on the other hand.