As the Kingdom of Morocco comes under scrutiny for its recent large-scale expulsion of Christians, the North African country is responding with the help of religious leaders and even the U.S. State Department, which released its latest human rights report at an opportune time.
On Thursday, representatives of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Church, together with Chief Rabbi Joseph Israel, met with King Mohammed VI and Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui in a show of support for their host country, where “we live in peace, prosperity and freedom,” according to Father Dmitry Orekhov, representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Morocco.
"We respect the Moroccan law, the law of our host country, while having the freedom of worship for foreign Christians," said the Catholic Archbishop of Rabat, Vincent Landel, according to the state-run Agence Maghreb Arabe Presse (MAP).
Ahead of the meeting, the religious leaders released separate statements condemning all forms of proselytism, which the Minister of Interior said aims to undermine "our creeds and our religious spiritual values."
Representing the Protestant Church, according to MAP, was the Rev. Jean Luc Blanc, president of the Executive Committee of the Evangelical Church in Morocco, who stressed that all forms of proselytism are prohibited by the Evangelical Church.
After noting how Protestants are very attached to religious freedom, Blanc called for distinguishing between religious freedom and proselytism.
The meeting Thursday was held as Moroccan authorities worked to deport more than 40 foreign Christian aid workers, including a group of 16 Christians who were accused this past week of proselytizing the 33 orphaned children they took care of at their Village of Hope.
According to Compass Direct News, the U.S. Embassy in Rabat was reportedly given a list this week of 40 citizens to be deported.
Though U.S. Embassy in Rabat could not comment on the existence of such a list, spokesperson David Ranz confirmed that the Moroccan government does plan to deport more U.S. citizens for alleged “proselytizing.”
“We have been informed by the Moroccan government that it does intend to expel more American citizens,” Ranz said.
In general, Morocco is known for its religious tolerance, though the government restricts non-Islamic religious materials and proselytizing and monitors the activities of non-Muslim religious groups.
In its latest report on human rights practices in countries around the world, the U.S. Department of State commended Morocco for its efforts to promote inter-religious tolerance – praise that the Moroccan government made sure to point out Thursday immediately after the report's release.
"The government [of Morocco] continued to encourage tolerance and respect among religions," MAP highlighted the report as saying.
To further defend its recent actions, Morocco's government also pointed to its investigation of the Christians at Village of Hope, whom they accused of “exploit[ing] the innocence of the children … to convert them to Christianity under the cover of charity actions.”
The fact that these children were supervised by 16 people (at a rate of one supervisor for each two children, the highest in the world) shows that it is not a sincere and true charity action, government spokesman Khalid Naciri said at a press briefing Thursday.
Naciri also reported that evangelization materials meant for the children were found in the orphanage, including books, leaflets and CDs.
Despite the government’s claims, the workers at Village of Hope insist that their expulsion from the country was "without foundation and completely unjust."
In a statement Thursday, Village of Hope said it is not a missionary organization and that it only exists to offer love, care and education to Moroccan children.
"[T]here is absolutely no legal merit to the action taken against VOH," its statement reads.
Village of Hope registered with the Moroccan government in 2002 as an official Christian organization and its workers say they have always sought to adhere to the Moroccan law prohibiting evangelism and even signed a declaration stating that they will abide by it.
As no charges concerning the welfare and care of the children have ever been raised as a concern by the Moroccan authorities in the ten-year history of VOH, the foster parents and workers there feel they were caught up in a national crackdown against Christians living in Morocco.
Jack Wald, pastor Rabat International Church in Rabat, Morocco, said Christians around the country were called in last weekend and questioned overnight. Many were sent out of the country the next day.
Some say the clampdown on foreign workers could signal government malaise toward the growing church.