Are Christians in Morocco emerging from shadows of the past?

It is still unclear when the so-called phenomenon of Moroccans converting to Christianity began to come out of the closet. There is no official statistic available on the number of Christian converts in Morocco even though the US State Department estimates the number to be between 2,000 and 6,000. More importantly, it is difficult to identify the reasons that drive them to convert in the first place.

Amid this hazy scenario, one thing seems certain: Moroccan Christians are emerging from the shadows of the past. They are beginning to demand their rights and criticize discriminatory practices.

The establishment of the National Coalition of Moroccan Christians was one of the major steps taken by the converts as they decided to stop practicing their faith in a clandestine manner as they had been doing for years.

Another first case of its kind was the coalition’s decision to officially address the National Human Rights Council. “Representatives of the coalition met with a delegation from the council and submitted a folder that contains a series of our demands,” said coalition spokesman Mustafa Susi. “Those included freedom of worship and the official recognition of churches in the country.”

The demands, Susi added, included the right to have their own cemeteries and to use Christian names for their children. “The group also asked for the right to decide if they want their children to take Islamic religion class in school.” Susi evaluated the meeting as “positive” as it constitutes the first step toward communication between Christian converts and the Moroccan government. The council, however, made no promises.

Moroccan Christians also launched a YouTube channel called Moroccan and Christian and which is described as “a channel that includes Moroccan Christians of all types as they explain their faith, answer questions about their patriotism, and refute misconceptions about them.”

Right to choose one’s faith

Human rights activist and minister of justice and liberties Mustafa Ramid said that people have the right to choose their faith and that this right is granted by Islam.

“We cannot prosecute those who choose to change their faith,” he said, addressing members of the Justice, Legislation, and Human Committee at the Moroccan parliament. “The problem is political rather than religious or legal because we are worried that we would turn into camps and that this will start dividing our society.”

Ramid also revealed his role in overturning a jail sentence against a Moroccan youth named Mohamed al-Baladi who was charged with proselytizing. “He was sentenced to two and half years under article 220 of the penal code but investigations proved that he was not guilty and I revealed that to the prosecution. He only converted to Christianity.”

According to article 220 of the Moroccan penal code, anyone who “undermines a Muslim’s faith” is sentenced to 6 months to 3 years in jail. This law, however, applies technically to people involved in missionary activities. The law in some cases applied to charity organizations that were accused of using their humanitarian work for proselytizing purpose, the children’s home called Village of Hope, closed in 2014, being the most prominent example.

Rights activist and member of the National Coalition of Moroccan Christians Zuheir al-Dukhali said that they have no political agenda as the state might fear and their existence is in no way a threat to national security.

“We only want the constitution to be modified in a way that explicitly grants all Moroccans the freedom to choose their faith,” he said. Dukali said that the state eyes Christians with suspicion especially after authorities arrested a group of Christians distributing books about Christianity in remote villages.

“Ever since, there has been an assumption that Christians serve a foreign agenda, but now the situation is different since no one is trying to convert anyone and we do not aim at spreading Christianity in Morocco.” Dukali also noted that if the state does not recognize the Christian minority, this will encourage extremists to target them. “This is not the case with the Jewish minority which is recognized by the state, which allows Jews to practice their faith freely.”

Opening up on the issue

Political analyst Mustafa al-Sehimi argued that Morocco is becoming more open on the issue of Christians and this was demonstrated in the meeting between representatives of National Coalition of Moroccan Christians and the National Human Rights Council.

“There is also a tendency toward distinguishing between missionary activities in which needy people are sometimes taken advantage of on one hand and an individual’s freedom to choose his or her faith on the other hand,” he said.

Sehimi, however, added that while the law only punishes proselytization, converts to Christianity are punished in other ways. “Converts lose their right to the custody and guardianship of their children and they can neither inherit nor bequeath their wealth to non-Muslims, which means they become civilly non-existent.”

Sehimi added that the first draft of the 2011 Moroccan constitution contained the phrase “religious freedom” which faced objections by the Islamist Justice and Development that threatened to vote against it. “In 2011, the atmosphere was tense enough and it was not a good idea to add more tension so we ended up with ‘the freedom of practicing religious rituals.’”

According to article 3 of the 2011 Moroccan constitution, “Islam is the religion of the state and the state grants the freedom of practicing religious rituals.”

Egypt’s baptism agreement: Solution or reason for more debate?

During his two-day visit to Egypt, Catholic Pope Francis signed a baptism unification agreement with his Coptic Orthodox counterpart Pope Tawadros II. According to the agreement, both Catholic and Coptic Orthodox churches are to acknowledge each other’s baptisms so that people seeking to convert from one denomination to the other will not need to repeat the admission rite.

“Today we, Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros II, in order to please the heart of the Lord Jesus, as well as that of our sons and daughters in the faith, mutually declare that we, with one mind and heart, will seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other,” said the statement issued by the two popes.

The agreement seemed like an adequate solution for existing tension between the two churches especially in the case of Catholics who want to join the Coptic Church and are required to go through a re-baptism, yet the heated debates that preceded the declaration among members of the Coptic community are hardly expected to subside.

According to Coptic activist Mina Thabet, the agreement is meant to solve problems that arise when people from different denominations want to get married. “It is difficult for a Catholic who wants to marry an Orthodox Copt to repeat the sacrament, and for a Catholic this means that his Christianity is not recognized by the other church, as if he is not a true Christian,” he said.

READ ALSO ANALYSIS: The religious significance of Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt

Thabet, who is also a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and ‎Freedoms, said that the Coptic Church’s stance on Catholic baptism dates back to the Roman Empire, in reference to the AD 451 Council of Chalcedon that marked the separation of the two churches, when centuries of sectarian discrimination drove the Coptic community to be “more conservative, closed, and strict in its Orthodox values.”

According to Thabet, Pope Tawadros II apparently wanted to ease those restrictions, but was put under pressure by the Coptic community, which led to changing the wording of the agreement into “seek sincerely not to repeat baptism” so as not to make it mandatory for the Coptic Church to accept Catholics without re-baptism.


Journalist Maged Atef argued that the significance of the agreement and the controversy stirred by it are the result of two main factors: first, it is about baptism, which is the sacrament of admission into Christianity and second, it tackles a 1,500-year conflict between the two churches. “While the Catholic Church recognized the Orthodox Church in the 1960s, late Coptic Pope Shenouda of Egypt still insisted on not recognizing Catholicism,” he wrote.

“This changed with the advent of Pope Tawadros since he adopted a more reconciliatory stance with Catholics yet was faced with opposition by hardliners who supported Shenouda.”

Atef added that it was difficult for Copts to accept after all those years that they and Catholics can stand on an equal footing. “Now the Coptic church is divided into two camps. The hardliners believe that what Tawadros did is a disaster and they are the ones who leaked information about the agreement before it was signed so they can incite the community against him. On the other hand, the reformists believe he embarked on a historic step that is in line with the teachings of Christ,” Atef explained.

However, Atef clarified that in all cases hardliners are incapable of entering into a confrontation with Tawadros since he enjoys a great deal of support inside the church and because the political climate in Egypt cannot take more instability.

Needs approval

Mena Assad, lecturer of theology at the Coptic Orthodox Church, said that Pope Tawadros discussed the unification of baptism with the Catholic Church at the Holy Synod in 2014 and the majority of the members rejected it. “This cannot just be reversed through a visit by the Catholic pope to Cairo. It is an issue that has to be approved by the relevant committees at the Holy Synod and cannot be dealt with unilaterally by the pope,” he said.

Assad added that the Holy Synod also issued a decree in the 1990s stating that Catholics who want to join the Coptic Orthodox Church have to be re-baptized. “The reason is simply because the bases of faith for both churches are different and baptism needs to be based on faith. Unless beliefs are unified, baptism cannot.”

Coptic activist and writer Kamal Zakher said that the agreement is more symbolic than practical.

“The agreement will not unify baptism right away. It is not as simple as that, yet it is a good step towards rapprochement between the two churches,” he said.

“True, it was a shock for Orthodox hardliners, but it opens the door for discussion on issues that were treated as givens before and for letting go of the idea that one sect would consider itself the only right party.”

It is noteworthy that the rite of baptism itself is not the same in the Catholic and Coptic churches. In the Catholic Church, holy water is sprinkled over the person’s head, while in the Coptic Orthodox Church, the person is totally immersed in holy water.