MARSEILLES, France (Compass Direct News) – A large, military-led team of Moroccan authorities raided a Bible study in a small city southeast of Marrakech last week, arresting 18 Moroccans and deporting a U.S. citizen, area Christian leaders said.
Approximately 60 officers from the Moroccan security services on Thursday afternoon (Feb. 4) raided the home of a Christian in Amizmiz, a picturesque city of 10,000 mainly Berber people 56 kilometers (35 miles) southeast of Marrakech. A church Bible study was in progress at the home with visitors from western and southern Morocco, the leaders said.
Five of the 18 people held for 14 hours were small children, two of them infants no more than 6 months old. The other small children ranged from 20 months to 4 years old, and also detained was the visiting 16-year-old nephew of one of the participants.
The Christian leaders said authorities interrogated participants in the Bible study for 14 hours. The authorities filmed the interrogations with digital video cameras and cell phones.
The leader of the Christian group, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said the raiding party was unusually large. It included an accompaniment of 15 vehicles led by a colonel and two captains.
"It's the first time in our current Moroccan church history that the Moroccan government used this size of a legion to attack a small Christian meeting," he said. "All the time they kept repeating that this was ordered personally by the new Moroccan Justice Minister [Mohamed Naciri] and by the highest level General of the Gendarmerie [Housni Benslimane]."
Quoting a statement by the Interior Ministry, the state-run Maghreb Arabe Presse news agency reported that a "foreign missionary" had been arrested for trying to "spread evangelist creed in the Kingdom and locate new Moroccan nationals for recruitment."
The statement added that the raid took place "following information on the organization of a secret meeting to initiate people into Christianity, which would shake Muslims' faith and undermine the Kingdom's religious values."
The U.S. citizen, whose name has not been released, was deported immediately after interrogation. The Christian leaders said the visiting Moroccans were sent back to their homes in western and southern Morocco.
Authorities seized Bibles, books, two laptops, a digital camera and one cell phone, they said.
"I don't think this number of Moroccan government forces was ever used even against Muslim fundamentalists," the leader of the Christian group said.
Overall, the North African country has a history of religious tolerance. Morocco's constitution provides for freedom to practice one's religion, but Article 220 of the Moroccan Penal Code criminalizes any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert to another religion.
In its 2009 international religious freedom report, the U.S. Department of State noted that on April 2, 2009, a Moroccan government spokesman asserted that freedom of religion does not include freedom to choose one's faith.
"The fight against Christian proselytizing in accordance with law cannot be considered among human rights abuses," the Moroccan government spokesman said, "for it is an action aimed at preventing attempts to undermine the country's immutable religious values. The freedom of belief does not mean conversion to another religion."
Morocco is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one's faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.
The covenant also states, however, that "freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others."
In early December last year Moroccan police expelled five Christian foreigners for "attending a forbidden meeting," according to an unnamed government official. The five men were involved in a training seminar for 17 Christians in northern Morocco.
"We were highly surprised that Morocco dared to arrest and expel us," said one of the deported Christians, noting that only Christians were present at the meetings. "The police told us that we were holding a forbidden meeting, but we are friends just coming together for fellowship and for teaching each other. Is that forbidden in Morocco?"
The deportations were a serious violation of religious rights, the Christian said.
"The police came with 35 agents – 12 of them invaded the building, and the rest of the police surrounded the premises just to arrest 17 friends coming together for fellowship," he said. "We were held in custody for one day and night, and we were interrogated for many hours, until 4:30 the next morning."
On March 29, 2009, the Moroccan government announced that it had expelled five female Christians for attempting to "proselytize," although sources said they were foreign visitors merely attending a Bible study with fellow Christians. The accused women were five of 23 tourists, expatriates and Moroccans arrested in Casablanca on March 28 during what the Interior Ministry called a "proselytizing" meeting involving Moroccan citizens.
Police seized numerous pieces of evangelistic "propaganda," including Arabic books and videos. But a source told Compass that everyone in attendance was a Christian and that they had gathered merely for a Bible study, which he said falls within Morocco's constitutional right of freedom to express one's faith.
The authorities interrogated 12 others, 11 of them Moroccan citizens, for participating in the women's Bible study in the apartment of a local Christian leader in Casablanca. They released them early the following morning, returning them home in unmarked police cars, according to the state department report.
"The authorities reportedly pressured the women to return to Islam, mocked their Christian faith, questioned why they left Islam to become Christians, and asked if there were other Christians in their families," the report states.
A Christian who works in the country told Compass that Moroccan Christians do not see themselves as contradicting national values.
"Moroccan Christians are proud to be Moroccan and desire the freedom to be legally recognized by the government," he said.