"Why Don't You Pray in the Mosque?"

Native Christians in Morocco are often met with skepticism. European Christians, on the other hand, enjoy full religious freedom. Thilo Guschas reports on the small minority

Christian church in al-Mohammadiya, Morocco (photo: Mona Naggar)
In general, Moroccan society is tolerant toward Christians, but skepticism and ignorance often prevail

​​"If I take the bus, for example, the other passengers say: 'You're from our district, why do you go to the church? Why don't you pray in the mosque? We have so many of them.' When I'm looking for a job and one of the job placement officers knows I'm Christian, then it's immediately: No, we don't have any jobs for you."

Christians in Morocco, like this young man, are in the minority. Less than one percent of native Moroccans belong to a Christian church.

While European Christians in the country can practice their religious undisturbed, this is much more difficult for Moroccan Christians. In general, they are suspected of having converted to Christianity. This would mean that they had renounced Islam, which is strictly forbidden for Muslims, although secular laws in Morocco permit it.

Ambiguous status

Jean-Luc Blanc, pastor of the Protestant congregation in Casablanca, criticizes this double moral:

"We wish that the Moroccan authorities would take a clearer stand on this question. We want clarity. Sharia, that is, the religious legal system, prohibits Muslims from changing their religion, but according to the secular laws in Morocco it is legal. Therefore we ask, what is the state's position toward human rights?"

Jean-Luc Blanc has often experienced that on this issue Muslims point to the so-called Dhimmi status to show how tolerant Islam is. This special status grants members of monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity, a protected position.

This doctrine goes back to the time of Islamic expansion, when Arabic conquerors rapidly invaded one country after another in which many Christians and Jews lived. They were allowed to practice their religion, but were not permitted to build new places of worship. In addition, they had to wear conspicuous clothing that made them visible as adherents of a different faith as well as pay a poll tax.

Historically, the regulations stemming from this Dhimmi concept functioned to secure the power of the Muslim minority in these conquered countries.

Historical tolerance?

Today, however, the reality is very different. The Maghreb state was Islamicized around 1200 years ago. For Christians such as the theologist Jean-Luc Blanc, every argument using the Dhimmi status is only an ideological debate. This alleged tolerance, for instance, has created a situation in which in some Arab countries Jews and Christians are not allowed to appear as witnesses before Islamic courts.

He also recalls that despite the Dhimmi law services are banned in Saudi Arabia. That's why he expects a relatively tolerant country like Morocco to respect human rights and thereby religious freedom.

The royal dynasty taking a stand?

"It is important for us that the Moroccan state take a clear stand because we need to know how to behave toward Moroccans who are interested in Christianity.

Right now we don't turn them away, but we have to act in a distanced manner so as not to come into conflict with the law," explains Jean-Luc Blanc.

Foreign Christians in Morocco hope that the royal dynasty in particular, which is striving to create a liberal image, could effect a positive change. One of the King Muhammad VI's closest advisors, for example, is Jewish. Jean-Luc Blanc sees in this an auspicious gesture, especially since Moroccans in general are quite tolerant.

Fear of American missionaries

Yet the mood could change overnight. On the one hand, there are also fears that Islamists could gain new adherents as a result of the increase in the number of mission campaigns from the United States. Jean-Luc Blanc sees a danger in this massive Christian proselytizing propaganda that would ultimately affect Christians.

"Because the large churches have to turn away those who are interested in Christianity, they then turn to other Christian religious communities, Christian sects such as the Mormons, for instance. I don't have exact figures, but after September 11, 2001 and the beginning of the Iraq War many American missionaries have come to Morocco to convert Muslims to Christianity, claims Jean-Luc Blanc.

Exactly this is what Islamists in Morocco could exploit in general in order to take action against all Christians in the country.

"The situation has become dangerous," says Jean-Luc Blanc, "because all these Christian sects here are founding new Protestant communities and are even going door to door. They are particularly successful among Africans who are here illegally.

So far all this has been tolerated by the authorities. This means that while we, the large established churches respect the laws of the country, the small communities are allowed to be active. The question is only how long will this be tolerated. How long will the majority Muslim population put up with it? We already have more Christian missionaries in the country than Moroccan Christians," says Jean-Luc Blanc.

Thilo Guschas

© Deutsche Welle 2007

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce


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