Interview with The Rev. Rob Schenck On The Friendship Mission to Morocco

The Christian Friendship Mission seeks to cultivate the friendship of the 99% Muslim nation, Morocco. A major part of that initiative is the cultural music festival titled, "Friendship Festival," a three-day high profile musical celebration to take place in Morroco in May 2005 where 8-12 Christian Contemporary music bands and 3-4 Moroccan traditional bands will perform in front of fifty thousand Moroccan citizens daily. The event will be broadcasted on television throughout Morocco and even into France.

Simultaneously with Friendship Festival, there will also be a humanitarian aspect where Christian relief teams will operate under the aegis of Operation Serve International.

Best of all, a "formal dialogue" set to take place concurrently with the music festival, will enrich the understanding between American Evangelical leaders and Moroccan Islamic officials, while informal "friendship encounters" will take place between Christians and Moroccan citizens at the music festival.

The Christian Post interviewed The Reverend Rob Schenck, President of Faith and Action and President of The National Clergy Council, who spoke with us about the Christian Friendship Mission between the Muslim nation of Morocco and Evangelical Christians from the United States.

How did you get involved in the Friendship Festival?

I was first invited to Morroco by the Institute of Religion and Public Policy - Joseph Greidoski, and he had proposed a delegation of evangelicals.

What made him think of that?

Michael Kirkley, who is the president of Friendship Caravan lived in Morocco for a number of years and became a friend of the current ambassador of the United States, Aziz Mekouar. In a conversation between Aziz Mekouar and Kirkley, this whole concern over the tensions between the Arab world and the western world, particular the United Stated, came up. Mr. Kirkley suggested that Evangelical Christians might be a bridge to the Arab world because we share many of the same concerns of morality.

Can you tell us about the first visit?

We traveled first a year ago as guests of the Moroccan government. They showed us the warmest hospitality, and they gave us complete liberty to express our concerns of the dismal human rights record, lack of freedom of religion, and they even allowed us the request to meet with Moroccan Christians, which is not an accepted position but they allowed us that opportunity. The Moroccan Christians then expressed their concerns to us, and we took those concerns to the Human Rights Commission.

That first visit went very well. I returned for a second visit in October. Dr. Thomas (of CreationFest) had already gone on his own fact finding mission in May. That's when a music festival was proposed. Music is very important to Moroccans, and it is also a great conduit for Evangelical Christians.

What other events/aspects does the Friendship Mission encompass?

Dr. Richard Cizik, (Vice President for Governmental Affairs of National Association of Evangelicals) proposed a "formal dialogue" between American Evangelical leaders and Moroccan Islamic officials in Spring 2004. It was accepted by the Moroccans after that. We agreed that we would do it simultaneously - at the same time as the music festival.

In the meantime, I was asked to coordinate a humanitarian component, which will allow us to have a humanitarian relief effort for Moroccans by hygiene workers, running concurrent with the music festival.

So you have the music festival or cultural exchange, a dialogue, the religious exchange, and then the humanitarian aspect. Why is the humanitarian aspect so important at an event like this?

It shows that Christians want to serve others. That is important. We look forward to the day as an Evangelical when we can easily and without impediment, communicate what we believe and why we believe it with Moroccan citizens, and they can do the same with us - without any restrictions on religion.

The Economist magazine stated that the Moroccan government is the most democratic country out of the Arab countries...

Yes they're the most democratic. They have undertaken some sweeping reforms in the last several years that have mostly to do with family law and the rights of women. Women have been elevated to having completely equal rights with men, which is a radical thing for many Muslim cultures. They have undertaken tremendous democratic reforms, however, they still have a law against "shaking the faith."

Their policies with respect to religion remain the same. Legally, you cannot shake the faith of a Muslim. You can't actively proselytize. I had made it clear as an evangelical leader, as a minister, as a Christian - I have made it clear that it's not our objective to convert anyone. I think we're powerless to convert anyone. Conversion is a coercive, intellectual, academic, or cultural exercise.

We would like to announce what the Bible says about Jesus Christ. We would like to communicate clearly why we personally embrace Jesus Christ, our savior, and what he has to say to the world through the message in the NT. Now, if they think that is conversion…

No human being can convert another being. That's the work of God. God changes people's minds. That's not what we're doing. What we would like is the freedom to communicate to the people what our faith is and we wish that the people may have the freedom to communicate to us as well. They have to decide when that will happen.

Right now, there is a two-way communication system with the Moroccan government.

What do you mean by "two-way communication system"?

In the past, I think there has been a lot of fear and ignorance and even defensiveness on the part of both Muslims and Evangelical Christians when it comes to understanding one another. There are many stereotypes on the part of Evangelical Christians on what Muslims are and what Muslims believe. There are an equal number of stereotypes on the Muslim side, so there is terrible distrust between two people groups.

By just simply listening to one another, I think we will learn that we have more in common than we thought. We care about moral issues, social issues, and we certainly believe that religion should play a very important part in secular life.

Those are common points where we can sit down and talk to each other. Unless we talk to each other, we can't ever hope to communicate the Gospel to the Arab world. That communication begins by talking to each other, understanding each other, and gaining trust with each other.

You wish to communicate the Gospel. Will you do that? How will you do that?

We have already been invited to share our faith. Our official hosts from the government has asked us questions about our faith in Jesus Christ, and we have been very clear in what we believe and why we believe it. As far as any sort of uninvited presentation of the gospel, that has not been allowed, and we have promised not to engage in that kind of behavior until the Moroccans give us the right to do that.

Now our position is to build open communications, but on how Christians go over and conduct themselves is entirely up to them.

What is the vision of the friendship exchange?

Our hope and prayer is that friendship between Muslims and Evangelical Christians will grow and expand beyond ourselves to include many many others. As a result of this friendship, there will be mutual trust on either side and that will give us opportunities to talk to one another about matters that in the past have brought tensions and misunderstandings, and that most certainly includes the things that are most important to us - and that includes our religious beliefs. At this point, we've set that as the goal. After we have achieve that, we can talk about other things.

Who will be in attendance and what will this event's effect on them be?

There will be 25 handpicked Evangelical Christian leaders. They will be pastors, professors of theology, heads of various Christian organizations, and they will sit opposite their counterparts in the Muslim community in Morocco.

Then, we will have approximately 50 official observers, and they again are individuals involved in the same areas, who will watch this process and then analyze and comment on it in the Christian world.

In addition, there will be approximately 20 Christian journalists who will be over there. Some will be there in their official capacities as reporters, reporting for both secular and Christian journals. Others will be there to watch and write commentary while still others will actually participate. David Aikman is head of that sub delegation, and he is President of Institute on Faith and Journalism.

Christian humanitarian relief organizations will be there under Dr. Sameh, Director of Operation Serve International and is an Egyptian by birth but a naturalized U.S. citizen, and so he speaks Arabic, which is a great advantage.

Meanwhile, Dr. Harry Thomas is in charge of the Christian music festival, and he is bringing over several contemporary Christian Music bands. Altogether, there will be around 100 people.

What about the Moroccan side? Who will represent the Moroccan side?

That's yet to be determined. But the Moroccans have been extremely hospitable. The United States has traditionally held friendly relations with Morocco. In fact, we have the longest relationship of friendship with the Moroccans. In recent years that has become somewhat muted, and I think they want to renew the relationship, and Evangelical Christians are a way to do that. They have great respect for President Bush's faith. We tend to downplay the importance of religion, but it's the opposite in Morocco.

What role do you think the King has played in this new and reformed Morocco?

I think that King Mohammed VI is showing himself to be a new kind of Arab leader, who is very cosmopolitan, very open minded and tolerant of other people and their beliefs. He is in every way a modern man. I think this also emanates from his nature and personality. I think it's auspicious. This is a very good indication of where the new Arab leadership is headed, and it's people like King Mohammed VI, and I would say King Abdullah of Jordan who could be a new and positive force in the Arab world.

Have there been any other points of contact with the Moroccan government?

There are many points of contact here in the US. The Moroccan Ambassador to the U.S. has hosted three major events at his residence involving Christian evangelical leaders, discussions, social opportunities, and even a formal seminar event where we learn a great deal about Islam as it is expressed in Morocco, which is very different from many other places. We generally think in the west that Islam as it is expressed is traditional Shiite or Sunni expressions. That is not the way Moroccans express their religion. It concentrates much more on the person of Jesus than any other Islamic [denomination]. Theirs is the Sufi expression.

We asked them things like, Who is Jesus to you as Sufi? They would answer, Jesus is the spirit of God who came to teach on how to be close to God. Now, that is a very good starting point for Christians to talk to Muslims about the importance of Jesus. We're very honest with one another. Of course, we have disagreements too. For example, we have disagreements on the nature of his death. For us, we still have to do a lot more talking, but there is a very receptive response on the part of the Moroccans when it comes to Jesus.

Rev. Rob Schenck directs Faith and Action, an effort to bring the word of God to bear in the hearts and minds of those who make public policy in America. Rob also volunteers as president of the National Clergy Council, a network of pastors and denominational leaders who work together to bring Christian moral principles into the conversation and debate surrounding national policy.