By Dana Leger
Rabat – The US Department of State (DOS) released its International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 on Tuesday. The report found that Morocco has made strides to promote religious tolerance and moderation since 2016, but there are still instances of minority faiths facing societal pressure.
The US government estimates that Morocco’s population of 34 million is comprised of more than 99 percent Sunni Muslims, less than 0.1 percent Shia Muslim, and less than 1 percent combined of Christians, Jews, and Bahais.
The kingdom’s constitution states that citizens are guaranteed freedom of thought, expression, and assembly as well as the freedom to “practice his religious affairs.” At the same time, the constitution prohibits undermining the Islamic faith or persuading a Muslim to convert to a different religion.
Both the constitution and the law governing the media prohibit any individual from criticizing Islam on public platforms, such as in print, online media, or public speeches. Such acts are punishable by two years imprisonment and a fine of MAD 200,000.
Among the most prominent steps Morocco has taken towards religious tolerance includes opening a dialogue between Rabat and Rome in order to bridge the divide between Muslims and Christians, for which an agreement was signed in May of 2017 with the Vatican Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
Plans were made for a symposium to be held every two years, alternating between the two respective cities, in order to address issues such as “hate speech, extremism and violence, and the exploitation of religion for political ends.”
Accordingly, King Mohammed VI recently extended an invitation for Pope Francis to visit Morocco, which will be the first time a pope has visited the kingdom in 33 years.
In an effort to preserve the kingdom’s religious and cultural heritage and in a symbol of tolerance, the monarchy has also continued support for the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country.
Conversely, a number of Christian, Bahai, and Shia Muslims reported feeling pressured by society, the local culture, and their families. According to the State Department, it is common for members of minority religions to conceal their faith from friends and family in fear of being criticized or becoming a target of violent extremist acts.
Specifically, Christians and Shia Muslims described fear of government harassment for practicing religious meetings in public; therefore many opted to hold such meetings privately in members’ homes.
The State Department reported that the government has at times detained and questioned Christian citizens about their beliefs, a number of whom stated that authorities pressured converts to renounce their faith.
In December 2016, the media reported that authorities in Casablanca prevented a group of local Christians from obtaining legal permission to hold a public gathering for Christmas.
In May of 2017, Spanish media reported Morocco’s minister of endowments and Islamic affairs “used the term ‘virus’ when referring to Christians and Shia Muslims in the country.” In a follow-up, the minister explained that he meant that the people of his country were “immunized” and resilient because of Sunni Islam, and that he was not insinuating that any religious practice or belief was a virus.
The report listed one case of some passersby attacking a Christian European teenage girl of Moroccan heritage for drinking juice in public during Ramadan in 2017.
During Ramadan in 2016, one man in Marrakech and another in Rabat were attacked by other civilians for smoking cigarettes during fasting hours. Media also reported that during the same time, authorities arrested two men in Zagora for drinking water in public during fasting hours, and at least three people were arrested in Rabat for smoking cigarettes.
The content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by the broadcast media is guided and monitored by the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) in efforts to combat violent extremism and open the door for tolerance and moderation.
Authorities also introduced new religious textbooks following a review of the content with the aim to remove extremist or intolerant references. The government has also restricted the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials and those it deems inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.
According to the State Department report, all publicly funded educational institutions are required by law to teach Sunni Islam in accordance with the traditions of the Maliki-Ashari school of Islam. Foreign-run and private schools have the option to teach Sunni Islam or to not include religious instruction within their curriculum. Private Jewish schools are permitted to teach Judaism.