Religion

34,817,000Population

446,550 Km2Area

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homekeyboard_arrow_rightMorocco

Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application

Morocco is a hereditary monarchy ruled by a Sunni dynasty which has reigned for centuries. The incumbent monarch is King Mohammed VI. He is considered to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. More than 99 percent of the country’s population are Sunni Muslims of the Maliki-Ashari school. Other religious groups – including Jews – constitute less than 1 percent of the population. The Jewish community is very old and the majority left after the establishment of the State of Israel. Community leaders estimate the number of Jews to be, at most, only 4,000, with the majority living in Casablanca.[1]

Christian leaders in the country estimate the number of Christians of all denominations to be as high as 40,000 (30,000 Roman Catholics and 10,000 Protestants). Unconfirmed sources give a number of just 5,000. The vast majority of Christians are foreigners. They use the churches built during the French protectorate era (1912-1956). It is not clear how many Muslim citizens have converted to Christianity; some put the figure as high as 8,000.[2] There are small Shia and Bahá‘í groups living in the country. According to the Moroccan constitution, the country is a sovereign Muslim state. Article 3 reads: “Islam is the religion of the state, which guarantees to all the free exercise of beliefs.”[3] The constitution prohibits political parties, parliamentarians or constitutional amendments to infringe upon Islam.[4] The European Parliament acknowledges that religious freedom is constitutionally enshrined in Morocco but adds that “Christians and especially Muslims who converted to Christianity face ‘numerous forms of discrimination’ and ‘are not allowed to set foot in a church’”[5]

Article 41 states that the king, as the “Commander of the Faithful, sees to the respect for Islam.” The article continues to state that he is the “Guarantor of the free exercise of beliefs”, presiding over the Superior Council of the Ulemas. This council is solely empowered to comment and agree to religious consultations (Fatwas) being officially agreed in keeping with the “precepts and designs of Islam”.  The article adds that this council is established by Dahir [royal decree].[6]

Under the Moroccoan Penal Code, proselytism by non-Muslims, that is to “shake the faith” of the Muslim population, is illegal.[7]The distribution of non-Islamic religious materials is also restricted by the government.[8]

Article 220 of the Penal Code[9] prescribes imprisonment of between six months to three years, plus a fine of 100 to 500 dirham (about US$11-55/£ 8-39), for any person employing “means of seduction in order to convert” a Muslim to another religion by exploiting his weakness or his needs, by making use of “education, health, asylums and orphanage institutions” to achieve the conversion.[10]

Voluntary conversion is not a crime under the criminal or civil codes.[11] However, there were reported cases of people arrested, including a Moroccan convert to Christianity suspected of proselytising.[12] Morocco does not impose the death penalty against apostates from Islam under the provisions of its Penal Code.

Article 219 of the new Penal Code draft law “provides for ‘imprisonment from one year to five years’ against anyone guilty of ‘undermining’, ‘offending’, or ‘insulting’ God and the prophets by any means.”[13] Under Article 223, anyone convicted of vandalism in connection with places of worship or sacred texts can be sentenced to jail for between six months and two years.[14]

The personal status of Muslim citizens is regulated by the country’s interpretation of Shari‘a law. Male Muslim citizens can marry non-Muslim women. But female Muslim citizens cannot marry non-Muslim men. Jews have rabbinical courts that oversee their personal status affairs such as marriage or inheritance.  But Christians do not have a legal status that guarantees their rights as a minority.[15] Furthermore, no Church is allowed to admit Moroccans who have converted to Christianity.

The breaking of the Ramadan fast in public is a crime punished under the Penal Code with six months in prison and a fine of up to 500 dirhams.[16]

The Moroccan government is also reported to be developing security initiatives aimed at stopping extremist groups from radicalising people.[17] Mbarka Bouaida, Morocco’s deputy foreign minister, said: “This idea of having a specific strategy within the religious sphere is really to preserve the Moroccan population from any extremism or terrorism messages, and it’s helped a lot. It’s helped to conserve our moderate Islam. It’s helped also to succeed somehow in the deradicalization process.” He added: “It’s helping us to understand this new phenomenon, and maybe to find long-term solutions.”

The government’s approach is to view Sunni Islam as civil service as well as a belief system. Under the new security measures, all Friday sermons are now monitored by the government. Additional steps taken include: all imams are screened and required to pass a certification course before conducting Friday prayers; all mosques will now have to meet specific security standards and are vetted as public buildings; government-enforced standards now apply to religious education and women are entitled to become “mourchidas” or secondary leaders within Muslim communities.

Incidents

Both government and society act to restrict religious freedom for citizens. But there have also been some encouraging signs.

Wishing to be granted more recognition and to be able to lead a public religious life, a group of Moroccan converts to Christianity have recently united to form the National Coalition of Moroccan Christians (NCMC). In April 2017 they approached the National Council of Human Rights [18] calling for an end to persecution against them. Reports note that some Christians in Morocco are starting to demand their rights and speak out against the discrimination to which they are subjected.[19]

Their main demands are to obtain the right to pray in churches, to marry according to their religion, to give their children Christian names and to be buried in Christian cemeteries. NCMC spokesman Mustafa Susi said: “The group also asked for the right to decide if they want their children to take Islamic religion class in school.”[20]Although in general the situation is improving, it is still problematic to publicly celebrate a Christian festival, establish a Christian prayer group, or even pray publicly.

Moroccan Christians generally agree that arrests have almost stopped. A Christian convert who is now a Protestant cleric noted that “harassment has become scarce”.[21] But social and sometimes security pressures still exist: religious texts have been confiscated. Very few converts speak out because they fear being harassed in the streets, verbally abused and – on rare occasions – physically assaulted.[22]

The general trend observed by academics, researchers, human rights activists, preachers and representatives of religious minorities is that there is progress towards religious freedom. The evidence, however, suggests that the progress is slow and fraught with setbacks. One example of this is the mid-November 2017 meeting between representatives of Morocco’s religious minorities including the Moroccan Commission of Religious Minorities and civil society actors.[23] Although the meeting was seen as an important step forward, one of the organisers deplored that there had to be a change of venue and that “some speakers also withdrew after ‘pressure’” was exerted. Also, media sources described participants as “‘atheists’ and ‘homosexuals’”.[24]

Prospects for freedom of religion

Despite indications that religious freedom in the country is gaining ground, commentators question whether the government’s drive against jihadism runs counter to social changes in the country. With an evident shift in society towards Islamic conservatism, experts such as Moroccan political scientist Abdeslam Maghraoui say that “the general direction of the country does not jibe with the idea that Morocco is making an effort to root out extremist ideologies”. He adds: “Morocco is definitely getting more conservative and the government doesn’t know how to handle it. Or worse, it could even be manipulated to this trend for its own political purposes.”[25]

More recently, the King has proposed education reform in order to fight extremist ideas. He has urged the commission he has appointed to revise schoolbooks and remove problematic content. The Minister of Education, Rachid Benmokhtar, said the schoolbooks were being subjected to a “cleansing operation”. Of the 390 books reviewed, there were 400 comments made concerning 147 texts. The textbook editors were told they could not republish the books without making the required changes regarding what the minister described as “discriminatory content towards gender and race groups as well as towards disabled people and rural citizens”.[26]

Regarding the question of converts, and of freedom of religion and belief in general, Morocco is facing a dilemma. On the one hand, the country wants to remain strict on religious matters in accordance with the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, to avoid displeasing especially the more conservative part of society. On the other hand, it wants to project a certain image of openness towards Western countries.[27]

Although there are some encouraging signs, Christians are still denied official recognition. Obtaining the latter would be an important step in terms of improving their legal, security and social status.

Endnotes / Sources

[1] ‘In Morocco, Muslims and Jews study side-by-side but for how long?’, PBS, 29th July 2015, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/morocco-muslims-jews-study-side-side, (accessed 18th  March 2018).

[2] Marion Joseph, ‘Morocco’s Christian converts pray in hiding’, La Croix International, 5th January 2017, https://international.la-croix.com/news/moroccos-christian-converts-pray-in-hiding/4445, (accessed 16th February 2018).

[3]. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, ‘Morocco’, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, U.S. State Department, https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper, (accessed on 5th March 2018)

[4] Jeffrey Jay Ruchti (ed), Morocco Draft Text of the Constitution Adopted at the Referendum of 1 July 2011, World Constitutions Illustrated, William S. Hein & Co., Inc. Buffalo, New York 2011, http://www.constitutionnet.org/files/morocco_eng.pdf,  (accessed 21st February 2018).

[5]. Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Morocco: General situation of Muslims who converted to Christianity, and specifically those who converted to Catholicism; their treatment by Islamists and the authorities, including state protection (2008-2011) http://www.refworld.org/docid/4f4361e72.html (Accessed 27/3/2018) [see also footnote entry 13]

[6]. Jeffrey Jay Ruchti , op. cit.

[7]. ‘Christian man arrested’, Open Doors, 31st January 2015, https://www.opendoorsusa.org/take-action/pray/morocco-christian-arrested/, (accessed 18th March 2018).

[8]. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, op. cit.

[9]. Penal Code (promulgated by Dahir No. 1-59-413 of 26 November 1962 (28 Jumada II 1382)) (in Arabic and French), WIPO Lex, http://www.wipo.int/wipolex/en/details.jsp?id=7323, (accessed 18th March 2018).

[10]. ‘Christian man arrested’, Open Doors, 31st January 2015, op. cit. (webpage accessed 27th March 2018)

[11]. Larbi Arbaoui, ‘There Is No Law That Punishes Apostasy: Moroccan Minister’, Morocco World News, 9th July 2015, http://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2015/07/162856/there-is-no-law-that-punishes-apostasy-moroccan-minister/, (accessed 19th February 2018).

[12]. ‘Morocco Christian Arrested’, op. cit.; ‘Morocco: Christian convert arrested in Fez’, Morocco World News, 22nd January 2015, http://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2015/01/149976/morocco-christian-convert-arrested-in-fez/, (accessed 12th February 2018).

[13]. Larbi Arbaoui, ‘Morocco Toughens Law Against Blasphemy, Sexual Harassment’, Morocco World News, 2nd April 2015, https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2015/04/155330/morocco-toughens-law-against-blasphemy-sexual-harassment/, (accessed 18th March 2018).

[14]. Larbi Arbaoui, op. cit.

[15]. Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Morocco: General situation of Muslims who converted to Christianity, and specifically those who converted to Catholicism; their treatment by Islamists and the authorities, including state protection (2008-2011), 10th November 2011, MAR103889.FE, http://www.refworld.org/docid/4f4361e72.html , (accessed 8th February 2018).

[16]. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, op. cit.

[17]. Paul D. Shinkman, ‘Can Government Purge Extremism From Islam?’, US News, 16th April 2015, https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/04/16/moroccan-government-delves-into-citizens-religious-lives-to-purge-extremism (accessed 28th March 2018)

[18]. Saad Eddine Lamzouwaq, ‘Moroccan Christians Speak Out, Demand Their Right to Worship’, Morocco World News, 1st May 2017, https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2017/05/215356/moroccan-christians-speak-demand-right-worship/, (accessed 8th February 2018).

[19]. Sonia Farid, ‘Are Christians in Morocco emerging from shadows of the past?’, El Arabiyah English, 22nd May 2017, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2017/05/22/Are-Christians-in-Morocco-emerging-from-shadows-of-the-past-.html,  (accessed 12th February 2018).

[20]. Ibid.

[21]. Hamza Mekouar, ‘Morocco’s Christian converts emerge from the shadows’, Yahoo News, 30 April 2017, https://sg.news.yahoo.com/moroccos-christian-converts-emerge-shadows-040700450.html, (accessed 18th March 2018).

[22]. Sarah Williams, ‘Why Are There Hidden Christian Communities in Morocco?’, Culture Trip, 27 October 2017, https://theculturetrip.com/africa/morocco/articles/why-are-there-hidden-christian-communities-in-morocco/, (accessed 15th February 2018).

[23]. Academics and researchers, human rights activists, preachers and representatives of religious minorities.

[24]. ‘Morocco minorities call for religious freedom’, Daily Mail, 18th November 2017, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-5096439/Morocco-minorities-call-religious-freedom.html, (accessed 15th February 2018).

[25]. Paul D. Shinkman, ‘Can Government Purge Extremism From Islam?’, U.S. News, op. cit.

[26]. Myriam Ait Malk, Morocco to Clear Out Discriminatory Content From School Textbooks, Morocco World News, 21st June 2016, https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2016/06/189641/morocco-to-clear-out-discriminatory-content-from-school-textbooks/ (accessed 28th March 2018)

[27]. Marion Joseph, op. cit.

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