WASHINGTON – Eddie and Lynn Padilla made a commitment to take care of up to eight abandoned children in Morocco.
The couple from Denver moved to the North African country in 2006 and took in their first Moroccan child two years later. They were raising four children – two of whom are biological – when they were charged with proselytizing the native kids and kicked out of the country earlier this year.
"I want to be reunited with my kids," Eddie said of his two foster children as he spoke in a somber voice.
The Padillas testified Thursday on Capitol Hill during the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing, led by Congressman Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.).
The recent deportation of some 100 foreign Christians from Morocco prompted Wolf and several other congressmen to look into the curious situation. They expressed outrage that religious freedom was being restricted in what has been one of the most liberal Islamic countries and questioned whether Morocco was taking a "radical departure" especially as an ally of the U.S.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) acknowledged the two countries' long friendship but was appalled by the expulsions.
"Friends don't let friends commit human rights abuses," he said.
During the afternoon hearing, four Christians denied allegations of proselytism, which is illegal in Morocco, and maintained that they respected and upheld the country's laws.
Herman Boonstra, director of the Village of Hope where six couples – including the Padillas – served as foster parents to 33 orphaned or abandoned children, said he had even received a document from the government declaring that his organization was in compliance with all laws and in good standing.
For 10 years, the Village of Hope operated with the full knowledge of Moroccan authorities. It was registered as an official Christian organization and the government knew the workers were Christian. They did not try to convert the children but sought to integrate them into Moroccan society and help raise them to make a positive contribution to the country, Boonstra explained.
The organization ran a school where the teachers used the "full Moroccan curriculum," teaching subjects such as Islamic history, the director said.
Boonstra and his wife were foster parents to eight Moroccan children when a large number of police officials arrived in March for what they called a "routine investigation."
In compliance with the laws, Boonstra said, "We had nothing to be afraid of."
But the investigation went on into the night and police entered the families' rooms without a search warrant. The families had Christian materials in their homes but those were for the parents' own "upbuilding" and not for conversion, the director explained. The police returned with cameras to film what they found at the Village of Hope. Later, on a rainy day, the Christian workers were given only a little over two hours to pack and say goodbye to their children.
Now denied re-entry to Morocco, they are appealing to the government to be reunited with their children.
Boonstra noted that they never hid their Christian faith because Morocco was a free country. But "it wasn't anymore," he said Thursday.
A Moroccan Christian who fled the country five years ago says Morocco was never what it portrayed itself to be.
"The fact is, religious freedom in Morocco simply does not exist," said Rachid, whose last name was not given for security purposes. "The West is presented with a facade that is now exposed."
When Rachid began meeting with other Christians in his home in 2003, the police began watching and interrogating the convert. His identity papers were seized and he soon fled. He still fears being caught.
The Moroccan government, he contended, "does not see the root problem to be missionaries or Christian non-profits. The real issue to them is the rising number of local converts."
Local Christians, he said, are no longer meeting because they are fearful they may be imprisoned or face worse punishment.
Michael Cloud, who was also expelled and is currently residing in Cairo, believes the country is redefining "proselytism." He said he has come across several news articles stating that proselytism is no longer limited to passing out tracts or teaching the Bible but it has extended to showing love. It's dangerous for Christians to show love to Muslims because it can change their hearts, Cloud recalled reading.
Cloud set up 12 centers in Morocco to assist children with Cerebral Palsy. As a Christian, he was monitored closely by the government (so much so that the police knew more about him than his mother did, he said). He had to leave for Cairo where his wife was being treated for breast cancer and when he tried to return to Morocco, he was refused entry and has not been able to go back since.
During the 14 years he was in Morocco, not one Moroccan authority said he did something wrong, Cloud said. Though he lived in accordance with the laws, he was treated like a criminal, he noted.
The Christians testifying on Thursday said they received no evidence or explanation from Moroccan authorities of their alleged proselytism activities.
However, the ambassador of the embassy of the Kingdom of Morocco, stated otherwise.
In a letter dated Thursday to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Aziz Mekouar contended that the repatriation measures against the Christians were not taken because of their faith but because they committed "criminal offenses, proven by an investigation conducted by the Crown Prosecution Office, following formal complaints by parents and close relatives of the children concerned."
"Given these circumstances, Moroccan authorities were obligated to fulfill their responsibilities by duly enforcing the pertinent laws," Mekouar added, while insisting that the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of worship was not breached.
Congressman Wolf and the deported Christians are still waiting on the evidence.
Meanwhile, the expelled parties have not received a formal document or an expulsion order, making it difficult for them to appeal. Their appeals have thus been either dismissed or continuously referred to other courts, leaving their case to float in "never never land," as Cloud put it.
Wolf has vowed not to "let this thing go" until it is resolved.
But a small group of U.S. Christians has asked the congressman to exercise caution.
The National Clergy Council and the Committee on Church and Society of the Evangelical Church Alliance had urged Wolf not to hold the hearing, arguing that it could increase the risk of exposing other religious and humanitarian aid groups working in Morocco to interference by local government authorities.
The group traveled to Morocco in April and met with representatives of the Christian community, officials in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and the head of the Jewish community.
After the visit and discussions with Ambassador Mekouar in Washington, D.C., the group concluded that the recent expulsions were not an act of hostility toward those of Christian faith.
"Rather, it is our opinion that the deportations indicate a growing alarm among highly placed officials in Morocco that the activities of certain foreign Christians provoked complaints from local communities."
Additionally, the deportations were tied to "growing fears of an impending attack by extremists on both Moroccans and Americans as well as other citizens."
"The government of Morocco has a firm zero-tolerance for such an episode," the group stated. "They would rather bear the brunt of negative public relations tied to deportations, than to have a guest on their soil jailed or physically attacked, perhaps even killed."
The group went as far as to affirm that there is no "generalized religious persecution" in Morocco.
Wolf said he tried to work with both Moroccan and U.S. officials over the last three months to resolve the situation. He even delayed setting a date for the hearing on several occasions to allow adequate time for a solution to be reached, he said.
But he said he has "come to the point that a congressional hearing looking into this situation is necessary."
They have my heart
Today, the Padillas remain anxious about their two foster children in Morocco. They hardly receive any information about how they're doing. The last time they were updated was six weeks ago when they were told the boys were healthy.
All they're asking for is to be with the kids again.
"They have my heart," said Eddie. "I love them."