Pope Francis to visit Morocco in March
LONDON - Pope Francis plans to visit Morocco in March next year, a two-day trip that is likely to highlight the plight of migrants, given the kingdom’s role as a transit route for Africans looking to migrate to Europe.
The Vatican announced the trip on Tuesday, saying the Pope had accepted an invitation from King Mohammed VI and would visit the north African country on March 30 and 31, stopping in Rabat and Casablanca. It gave no more details.
The Pope told Reuters in an exclusive interview this year that Europe needed to focus on education and investment in Africa if it wanted to stem the flow of migrants.
As Italy closes its ports to most African asylum-seekers, more are entering Spain with the majority coming via Morocco.
Morocco is a destination in itself and has granted 56,000 residency permits to foreigners, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, since it reformed its migration policy in 2013.
Francis, 81, will be the second pope to travel to Morocco, following John Paul II more than three decades ago.
Francis has already visited several Muslim countries, including Turkey in 2014, Azerbaijan in 2016 and Egypt in 2017.
Over 99 percent of the population in Morocco is Sunni Muslim, with Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims and Bahais making up the rest. Just over 27,000 are Catholic, according to the Vatican Insider newspaper.
Pope Francis moved quickly after his election in 2013 to make overtures to Jews and Muslims, inviting two old friends from Buenos Aires — a rabbi and a Muslim professor — on a trip to the Middle East where he condemned religious hatred.
Morocco is the only trip officially on Francis’s schedule for 2019 after a visit to Panama scheduled for the end of January.
But the pontiff is also expected to visit Bulgaria, Japan, Madagascar, Mozambique and Romania next year.
The Vatican said it would be releasing the programme for Morocco at a later date.
Francis’s decision to visit in March lays to rest rumours he planned to go to Marrakesh for a UN migration conference in December.
(AW and agencies)