Islam is the state religion in Morocco, but the country has a small Christian community dating back to Roman times, and kept alive mainly by devotees arriving from sub-Saharan Africa.
The Roman Catholic Church in the country, governed under a decree adopted in 1984 before the ground-breaking visit of then pope John Paul II in August 1985, has about 30,000 to 35,000 members.
There are about 3,000 Protestants, while several thousand believers follow other Christian movements, according to one expert.
More than 90 percent of the Christians hail from sub-Saharan Africa, and many of them are students drawn by grants for Morocco’s universities. There are also growing numbers of immigrants, who come to Morocco hoping to make their way to Europe across the Mediterranean.
Moroccans who have converted must practise their faith discreetly and risk being accused of proselytising if they engage in public expressions of any religion other than Islam.
The number of European Christians, either expatriates or descendants of French colonial families, has been falling since 1956. Back then Morocco counted more than 200 Catholic churches, with about 300,000 practising faithful.
But former holy places have gradually been turned into mosques or cultural centres, while some have just been abandoned and fallen into ruins. Today about 44 churches remain, with some 57 priests of about 15 nationalities, led by two bishops in Rabat and Tangiers.
Most of the Christians in Morocco are foreigners, but there are also several thousand Moroccans who have converted, mostly to the Protestant church. The Paris-based Observatory for Religious Freedom put the number at 8,000.
Morocco touts its policy of religious tolerance. And indeed its constitution states that “Islam is the state religion which guarantees to all the freedom to practise their faith”. The king as “the commander of the faithful, guards over respect for Islam”. And King Mohammed VI has vaunted himself as the defender of a “moderate Islam” and the protector of religious minorities.
More than 90 percent of the Christians hail from sub-Saharan Africa, and many of them are students drawn by grants for Morocco’s universities.
Christian foreigners linked to the “official” church enjoy the protection of the authorities, but unlike Jews, they do not have legal status in the state’s eyes. Moroccans who have converted must practise their faith discreetly and risk being accused of proselytising if they engage in public expressions of any religion other than Islam.
It is a criminal offence under Moroccan law to try to proselytise or “rock the faith of a Muslim or to convert him to another religion” punishable by six months to three years in prison.
Two associations which are not recognised by the state — The Moroccan Christians’ Coordination and the Moroccan Association for the Rights of Religious Minorities — have been campaigning for new legal clauses recognising religious freedoms and condemning discrimination against Muslims who have converted.
Most of the Christians in Morocco are foreigners, but there are also several thousand Moroccans who have converted, mostly to the Protestant church.
Religious minorities — Christians, Jews, Baha’is and Shiites — represent less than one percent of the population of the kingdom, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
The Jewish community has fallen from about 300,000 to less than 3,000 since the theation of Israel in 1948 and Morocco’s independence eight years later, according to some estimates. The number of atheists is unknown, as such a stand is usually rejected by Moroccan society.
And there are very few people who dare to publicly break with the daytime fast observed during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — something which is punishable by up to six months in prison.
© Agence France-Presse