Last update: 2022-04-22 09:35:11
This book about the Christian presence in Morocco during the 19th and 20th centuries, writes Brahim Boutaleb in the introduction, helps us revise "with serenity a page of contemporary history usually neglected by historians." Let us add that it is a careful and well-documented revision based on research conducted in the archives of the diocese of Rabat by the book's authors, Vincent Feroldi, a Catholic priest from the diocese of Lyon (France) who is also secretary general of the Groupe de Recherches Islamo-Chrétien (Islamic-Christian Research Group), and Jamaâ Baida, a Moroccan historian from Rabat's Université Mohammed V.
Unlike other Arab countries in the Middle East the Christian presence in Morocco and in the other countries of the Maghreb is not rooted in a centuries-old tradition, but is tied to the European presence in the country, i.e. the history of European colonial encroachment in this region. It is true that Morocco, albeit to a lesser extent than the rest of North Africa, had experienced a Christian presence during Roman times, but the Muslim conquest marked the demise of the local Church even though we do not know how and how fast it took. In the following centuries the best known episode of the Christian presence was the martyrdom in Marrakech of five Franciscan friars sent by Saint Francis to preach the Gospel.
During the 19th century Protestant and Anglican missionaries came on several occasions in order to actively proselytise, especially among local Jews. The Catholic Church returned to Morocco in the wake of Spain's colonial push. Franciscan Friars played the main role in this endeavour in terms of missionary activities and cultural and charity work under the leadership of Friar José Lerchundi, a great Arabist and founder of a Spanish-Arab printing house, a hospital, a school for boys, a man who proved instrumental in building a close network of contacts and friendships with Muslims.
However, once France got involved, not only was the Spanish effort stopped, but it also led to a colonial rivalry that had an impact on the life of the Church since the French did all they could to replace Spanish Franciscans with French ones and convince the Vatican to set up an Apostolic Vicariate in Rabat.
In the end France got its way, yet under the Protectorate colonial and Church authorities had different views about their role in the country. The former sought to tread lightly upon Muslim sensibilities and saw the Church only as serving the European colony; by contrast, the latter, especially under the second Apostolic Vicar to the country Mgr Henri Veille, aspired to engage in an active missionary role towards Muslims.
Despite these differences, for many Moroccans, especially in the nationalist camp, the colonial and evangelising missions were one and the same. Indeed Protectorate officials were often accused of an improbable complicity in what the Franciscans were doing. In reality the idea that Muslims would rapidly convert turned out to be an illusion despite the many good works and one well-known conversion, that of Mohammed 'Abd el Jalîl.
Relations between the local Church and colonial authorities became fractious as many Catholic leaders, including Mgr Louis Lefèvre, the new apostolic vicar, realised that the age of colonies was coming to an end and that the best service the Church could provide Moroccans was to accompany them on their path to independence.
When the country became independent the local Church shrunk considerably but at least no one could confuse colonial regime and Catholic presence any more. The Church was finally free to bear witness as some like Father Peyriguère and Paul Buttin had already done during the years of the Protectorate. Despite their small numbers, those Catholics still in the country contributed to its social and cultural development as demonstrated by the initiatives undertaken by the Benedictine monastery of Toumliline. Islamic-Christian relations entered a new phase based on dialogue, encouraged by the positive attitude of Morocco's ruling dynasty, which culminated in Pope John Paul II's 1985 visit.
The book, which ends on a note that stresses the need to live together, offers two points to think about. On the one, it shows how Christians and Muslims can achieve good deeds when they are moved by a shared desire to seek the truth; on the other, it reminds us that Christians, even when they are a minority, have always been called upon to cooperate with others for the good of the society in which they live.