Rabat - A few months ago, some Moroccan Christian activists created a YouTube channel and posted videos making their presence known, claiming to be a religious minority standing up for their full rights as citizens.
Rabat – A few months ago, some Moroccan Christian activists created a YouTube channel and posted videos making their presence known, claiming to be a religious minority standing up for their full rights as citizens.
This is being widely seen as a huge behavioral shift inside a religious community outside of Sunni Malikite Islam. This video is the first instance of Christian discontent with social and societal considerations ever witnessed in Morocco. There have been a few notable exceptions in other parts of the region, such as so-called “Brother Rachid,” host of an evangelical Christian television program in Europe, who has been very vocal in the media about his conversion from Islam to Christianity since 2010.
Just how many Christians in Morocco share the feelings expressed in the video is hard to determine in a country where 99% of the population is Sunni Muslim, while just 1% is comprised of Jewish (Judaism being recognized), Christian, Baha’I and even atheist and nonreligious people. Also complicating matters is the fact that many of this 1% tend keep their religion private, making it extremely difficult to take a thorough census of this population, which is not legally recognized.
As a result, the annual report from the U.S. State Department on human rights in Morocco remains one of the few reliable statistical perspectives available to track this issue. The 2014 report estimated the Jewish population, primarily seniors, at 3000 -4000 nationals, 2500 of them based in Casablanca alone, with the remainder living across the country. The same report placed the number of Moroccan Christians at 4000, most of them ethnic Amazigh, who practice their religion in churches. Some estimates count the number of Moroccan Christian churchgoers at 8000. According to the report, there are also 400 Baha’is, 8000 Shiite Muslims from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and a few Moroccans.
During my investigation titled “the defectors of State religion in Morocco,” published in the Moroccan newspaper Al Massae on February 10, 2013, I had the opportunity to encounter a number of Moroccans who decided to convert to Christianity, Baha’I faith or Shi’ism. In the course of speaking with these people, it appeared to me that while the State recognizes the freedom of religion for Jewish people, the rest of these minorities have nowhere to practice their beliefs. In addition to not being able to declare their belief, they’re also not allowed to convert to any other religion other than Sunni Malikite Islam.
Additionally, the Scientific Board, the highest religious authority in the country, made its position clear in a 2013statement stipulating that anyone who changes their religion will be punished like an apostate should be, stressing that “… whoever left the religion of their fathers and forefathers is considered an apostle in Islam, therefore deserving of punishment, unless they atone, or else all their deeds become null, and they lose both in this life and the hereafter and they should be punished accordingly.”
Vincent Landel, the presiding chief of the Catholic Church in Rabat had already stated that the church refuses “the conversion of Moroccan citizens to Christianity… That’s what the law says and we have to respect it.” This adherence makes it difficult for the Christian Moroccan community to get to churches in Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakesh.
The controversy over freedom of religion in Morocco goes back to the first half of the twentieth century, exactly six years after the independence of the Kingdom from France. In 1962, thirteen young Moroccan men and a Syrian citizen were tried for converting to the Baha’I faith. They were charged with threatening the stability of the country and three of them were sentenced to death. Five others were given life sentences with hard labor and the rest to 15 years in prison without parole.
The late King Hassan II stated in a press conference on December 12th 1962 that the sixth item of the constitution doesn’t allow in any way the preaching of religions and doctrines other than Islam, and it doesn’t recognize the Baha’I faith, considering “heretical” in the Islamic view. The king subsequently granted his pardon to the Baha’I prisoners. They were released from prison after international pressure during the monarch’s visit to the United States.
The controversy returned to the front page during the Arab Spring of 2011 when Morocco’s new constitution was adopted. Abdelilah Benkirane, then Secretary General of the PJD, threatened to vote no to the proposed constitutional changes, after news leaked constitutional committee writing the proposed amendments was intending to include the freedom of religion. Benkirane said in a speech in Temara “… what is the meaning of freedom of religion? Letting people violate the fast during Ramadan? Spreading sexual and homosexual liberties between people?” Benkirane, who would go on to be appointed by King Mohamed VI as head of government, added that “… including the freedom of religion would be the end of ‘the Emirate of the Believers.’”
Benkirane’s threats and the warnings of his party and its religious wing were sufficient to make the advisory committee in charge of changing the constitution backtrack on any attempt to include the freedom of religion. Many believe that Morocco missed an historical chance to acknowledge one of the main rights in any democratic country, because of narrow ideological considerations.
While the constitution doesn’t openly state that there is no freedom of religion, the law doesn’t actully prevent anyone from converting to another religion. Chapter 220 of the Moroccan criminal code punishes whoever uses any means of temptation to shake a Muslim’s belief or convert him to any other religion. In reality, the aforementioned chapter talks about children and poor people and the attempt to convert them to a religion other than Islam.
This analysis confirms the ruling of the court of appeal of Fez in 2014, which found Mohamed Baladi not guilty of proselytism, after it appeared to the committee of the court that Mr. Baladi changed his religion and didn’t try to convert anyone. This marked an unprecedented ruling by the judge Taieb Khiary that supported the freedom of religion, considered a lenient interpretation of chapter 220 of the criminal code.
This ruling supported a ratification made in April 2014 of a UN resolution on the organization‘s human rights council that stipulated “the right to protect everyone’s freedom of belief, displaying it, practicing and teaching it as well as manifesting their religion in public.” The resolution also emphasized “… the freedom of believing whatever you want… Including the right to change one’s religion and beliefs”
The decisions made by the Moroccan government might seem contradictory but one can’t deny the fact that there are some positive signals associated with it. Mainly it supports the idea of being tolerant of converts of other religions and doctrines and not resorting to arrest to stop vocal and open religious expression. In fact, the security services have a list of their names, more often than not for the purpose of protecting them from extremists.
This was publicly confirmed by the Baha’I at a press conference I took part in where their representative stated that the “… Moroccan government doesn’t bother the Baha’Is, even though they know of our existence, and they don’t deny it. Unlike Morocco, Egypt has launched a series of attacks on the Baha’I three years ago and they had to go through a legal battle against the Egyptian government, while in Iran, you can’t even be outspoken about being a Baha’I in the first place.” Of course none of this stopped the Moroccan Shiite and Christians from demanding their rights as citizens.
Because Morocco doesn’t oppose the gradual recognition of the freedom of religion, it’s facing a opposition to the recognition, mainly due to the rise of extremist fundamentalism and Salafism in the country. This is why it’s necessary that this recognition doesn’t cause a violation of the pivotal role played by the emirate of believers that includes all the political and human rights’ actors in managing religious affairs in Morocco, considered the safety valve that prevents chaos.
Furthermore, there is an apprehension that these minorities will be a source of trouble in the future, especially regarding the Moroccan Shiite, like some other countries that have Shiite sects on their soil (Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq). This explains the attacks which occurred in Morocco in 2009 after cutting its diplomatic ties with the republic of Iran. The actions were taken against the Moroccan Shiite and included the banning of their books from libraries as well as the closing of the Iraqi school in Rabat, arguing that it was trying to pass on Shiite ideologies amongst its students, regardless of The Moroccan Shiite addressing their pledge of loyalty to the emirate of the believers and no other party.
Despite the relevance of the justifications given by the state regarding the issue of “right of religion,” the reality of today shows that there are religious minorities in Morocco, full citizens, estimated in the thousands. Despite this they can’t make their beliefs public because the law only recognizes Sunni Muslims, representing the vast majority of the population, and Moroccan Jews.
The rule of law is based on civil foundations, not religious ones and it’s unacceptable that a segment of the Moroccan society still lives in this “daily schizophrenia,” caught between a belief they harbor in secret in their homes and a societal situation that considers them born Sunni Muslims.
Translated by Mehdi Belhesen. Edited by Constance Guindon
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity.
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