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Christians in the Muslim World

The Challenges of a Small Church in a Morocco that is Changing Speed



Morocco is not at the centre of international attention but its role is of key importance within the complexity of the Arab world, by lineage, by history, and by the dynamism that it expresses at various levels (and which should certainly not be read with the application of Western categories). A growth rate that is near 8%, reforms that have provoked major reactions (such as that relating to family law), the role of a monarchy that strives to link tradition and forms of modernisation, Morocco has been defined the ‘Spain of thirty years ago’, a parallel used without doubt in a positive sense. In this country there is a small Christian minority, a community that is certainly a ‘foreign’ community, as can be read in this interview, and yet one that is aware and living. The Archbishop of Rabat, Vincent Landel, is an illuminating point of reference of this community. Oasis asked him to be a guide in learning about and understanding his country and its religious situation.




What is the situation of Christians in Morocco?





Morocco is a country in which the citizens are Muslims (or Jews, in very small numbers). The Christians are all foreigners: practically all of them are passing through, they remain in Morocco only for the period of time that is needed for an economic mission or for their studies. The only Christians who are permanently here are the pieds noirs, who have lived here all their lives, although they are now beginning to be of a certain age, and Christian women who are married to Muslim citizens. But out of a population of 33 million inhabitants, this Christian community amounts to around thirty thousand people, a very small minority within this Muslim society.




Among these Christians there is a very small group of Russian and Greek Orthodox; a very small Anglican community; a more sizeable community of Francophone or Anglophone Protestants; and lastly the Catholic community, which, it is estimated, numbers around twenty-five thousand people, and is spread through about thirty cities or towns in the kingdom. The leaders of these various Churches meet at a Council of Churches once every three months to reflect on the ‘meaning of our presence’. The Council is absolutely informal but allows us to express our communion, our shared thoughts, and our friendship.




And the Catholic Church?





Our Catholic community is made up of ninety different nationalities. It is made up of pieds noirs and women who are married to Moroccan citizens, but also of a large number of students from sub-Saharan Africa and of expatriates; for this reason each year our community sees 20% of its population leave and receives another 20%. Our wealth is to be found in being constantly in movement and in a state of welcome. At the level of its population, our community is very young. It is estimated that the average age is about thirty-five. For a number of years there has been an increasing number of illegal immigrants passing through the country, and all of them want to go to Europe. But from being a transit corridor, Morocco has become a trap in which hopes are lost at sea. Tourists constitute another population, and this, too, is very mobile. The diocese of Rabat has only five permanent resident priests (and they are over the age of seventy-five) but it can rely upon another forty-odd diocesan priests fidei donum or religious, who come from fifteen different nations. The overall number may appear high but imagine a diocese that extends for over two thousand kilometres from north to south and for a thousand kilometres from east to west... We are aware that we are not priests for Christians but for men and women, to bear witness to a Love that rises above us. To live this significant presence, we have the grace of having 150 women religious (belonging to twenty-five different nationalities) in active life, and three institutions of the contemplative life: a convent of Clarissans, a convent of nuns of the Eastern rite, and a monastery of Trappists, which continues the kind of presence that was experienced at Tibhirine.




Is there a role for Christians in public life?





Our first challenge as a Church is to live communion; a communion that must take place around Jesus Christ and Morocco and not around some individual culture or nationality. This is a real challenge because we do not all have the same kind of ecclesial background and our spiritual pathways are very different; but on this pathway we have a brother in the person of the Blessed Charles de Foucauld who found his faith again during his childhood when watching Muslims pray in the streets, in Morocco. We do not even have shared reasons for being in Morocco; those who come here for work or to study must understand little by little that they are in the first line in the encounter with this world of Islam and that their Christian witness is an essential dimension.




Our second challenge is that of trust. First of all, trust amongst ourselves, we Christians. Cultures that are superior to others do not exist. And then it is necessary to have trust in the people that accepts us. It is specifically this trust that will allow us to establish ties of friendship, respect, mutual knowledge and understanding. This trust must pass by way of a great deal of humility and the acceptance of ‘the totally other, the different’. True encounter and dialogue can arise to the extent to which such trust exists.




Are there different schools and cultural centres…





It is because of this trust that we can provide an educational service through our Catholic schools (which follow the Moroccan programme and add a total bilingualism). They take in, in practice, only Muslim pupils; all the teachers and almost all the headmasters are Muslims. But it is the Catholic Archbishop who acts as a guarantor for these institutions and a priest accompanies the communion that exists between them. Unity and trust are created around a pedagogic project that we have established together, both Muslims and Christians. We thus receive in libraries or cultural centres a large number of young people of the high schools, universities or Ph.D. programmes. There, too, we offer a service of free presence and accompanying. Some sisters are nurses in national structures and a large number of Christians take part in the lives of associations which have been created throughout the country. In its own way, also through Caritas, the Church accompanies certain projects that are signs of the charity of Christ for all men.




What are your relations with the institutions and the authorities of the State?





As we respect, so are we respected. The fundamental reality is that we perceive that the authorities trust us; they know that the Catholic Church will not play false and will not engage in a proselytising approach.




Do the Christians feel that they are foreigners?






Does the phenomenon of the abandonment of Christians exist also in Morocco?





The Christians do not feel foreigners; they are foreigners. However, they enjoy total freedom of worship and the churches are always open. Although they are foreigners, they are respected in their faith. Say what one will, a Moroccan can only be a Muslim; he does not have the right to be without religion. If a Christian wants to marry a Moroccan woman he is obliged to convert to Islam. I believe that it is important not to confuse tolerance, a word that comes up again and again in speeches, with religious freedom!




Evangelisation: what does this word mean for the Moroccan Church?





For us it is not a matter of encountering Islam; every day, in our daily lives, however, we meet Muslim people. It is in these human encounters and our real lives that we learn to esteem each other, to understand each other, and to know each other. Seeing ourselves live with each other, we learn to know the spiritual pathway that is followed. It is at this level of spiritual life that we can advance. All of this takes place amongst friends. Even if some of us at times are invited to speak on a religious subject, there is no meeting at an institutional level. I believe that the time is not yet ripe for something of this kind; we have to accept that we should belong to the time of God. The current moment is that of ‘doing things’ together, in particular at the level of education, the promotion of the welfare of women, the promotion of development, and the promotion of peace. Perhaps, adagio adagio, we will be able to reflect on certain ethical questions and issues where we agree.




Do European or Western Christians understand and help their co-religionists in Morocco?





Is there something that they could do?





It is difficult to understand our Church from the outside; how many times have I heard it said ‘but what do you need?’, or ‘you have an absolutely disproportionate number of priests’. The West should understand that the vitality of a Church should not be judged on the basis of a numerical ‘efficiency’. As John Paul II observed during a visit ad limina: ‘your Church is a sign and one does not ask a sign to be large but to mean something’. And my predecessor loved to repeat the words: ‘if the Church did not exist in Morocco, something would be absent from the catholicity of the Church’. On the other hand, if we can be a Church in Morocco this is because the universal Church helps us at the level of people. Even if vocations are declining in Europe, it is important that European priests fidei donum continue to arrive, even if we already have some sub-Saharan priests fidei donum. For that matter, when you come to Morocco as tourists you should not be afraid of meeting the Christian community, to come and pray with it – you will be amazed.




Some Western Christians help us a little financially and we thank them, but it is necessary to expand this help. What we want is for the Catholic associations and NGOs, before they set in motion initiatives in Morocco, to come and reflect a little bit with the Church that lives here. This is because we realise that Europe decides according to certain criteria and acts accordingly without listening in the least to what we think is really needed. And then Western Christians should see Muslims as brothers with whom one can speak, with whom one can co-operate, and with whom one can build a world in which people love each other.




The relationship with Islam…





In order to try to understand what is experienced in Morocco, it is necessary to be aware that His Majesty the King is at the same time the commander of believers. Thus the political dimension, the religious dimension and the social dimension are all mixed. This is what is characteristic of Morocco.




It is true that we have seen fundamentalist Muslims take part in attacks in different parts of the world, and also in Morocco itself. But the Islam that is lived out in Morocco is not this. There are some people who are in the fundamentalist orbit but generalisations should be avoided. It is also true that a political party of Islamist tendencies will present a very large number of candidates at the next elections; but we should not demonise this party too hurriedly.




In some places it has proved difficult for us to work with Muslim associations in the social and humanitarian field but in general we co-operate without any problems.




Almost always in the West distinctions are not made: Islam is seen as a single reality;



at the most, in recent years, a distinction has gained ground between traditional Islam and radical Islam;



at times reference is made to moderate Islam. What is your vision of Islam in Morocco?





Some Western powers would like to impose on Morocco their vision of Islam; but this is absolutely none of their business. The question of religious freedom, however, remains, but should we not be aware that this notion has been presented in a context where the dominant is Judeo-Christian? Is it not in our interests today to think about such freedom anew in a multicultural and inter-religious context? There would certainly be ways of meeting each other and acknowledging each other




Even though sad backward steps in the press are to be noted, a certain freedom of expression is evident; this is a freedom that was unthinkable a number of years ago. All of this makes social life progress, a life strongly marked by Islam. In particular during the month of Ramadan, everything conforms to the religious rhythm – work, food, prayer and alms-giving.




In the past the role of the brotherhoods such as the ‘Issâwa was very strong:



are they still a significant reality?





Sufi brotherhoods exist but one cannot say that they are a generalised phenomenon.




Is Islamic fundamentalism advancing? In what sense? Terrorist groups were involved in the attacks



in Madrid. How was and how is the presence of these groups experienced by the majority?





It is true that on the one hand we see increasing numbers of women wearing the veil (some wear the Hijâb in a decisive way) and increasing numbers of Muslims add a week to the holy month of Ramadan. But we cannot say that because of this there is a radicalisation of Islam. Who am I as a foreigner to say this?




Indeed, on the other hand we see thinkers come from Europe to hold conferences. You see one review or another speak about it openly, in a critical sense; this would have been unthinkable a few years ago.




Certainly one notes that the Ministry for the Habous has extended its control over the mosques in order to regulate a little what can be said and done in places of worship, and also in order to regulate the building of these religious buildings. For some years a systematic training of imams has been engaged in, with a certain opening to other religions. And in this training there are also women, the mourchidat.




Does the very small Jewish community still have a role in Morocco? How is it placed within Muslim society?





The Jewish community is made up of between three thousand and five thousand people, whereas at the moment of independence the Jews were numbered in hundreds of thousands. They are of Moroccan nationality and they are active above all in business and there is always a representative of this community at the royal palace. What influence this community has I do not know but Morocco has always been ready to favour links between Israel and Palestine through discreet diplomatic meetings. And the Jewish saints are respected; every year a very large number of Israelis come from Israel, without any difficulty, to go and pray at their tombs.




What impact has the reform of the Code on the Family had on society?





At a social level the Moudawana, or the Code on the Family, is a revolution that will bear fruit in the long term; indeed one is dealing here with changing a culture in which women were eternal minors. We now see emerging women with great responsibilities and associations of women are being formed in order to advance and implement the rights of women. We will have to wait a generation for the rights of women to be perfectly applied. Education everywhere is trying to move in this direction, in the countryside as well.




Arab culture and Berber culture: what is their relationship?





At a cultural level for some years Berber culture, which has also been readmitted at school, has for some years begun to be taken into consideration, But we are just at the beginning. The populations are mixing ever more because of urbanisation but the separation between the Arabs and the Berbers remains very much alive at a family level. The difficulty comes from the fact that there are at least three different Berber languages, just as there is the Arabic that one learns at school (which is the same throughout the Arab world) and the Arabic that is spoken in the home. However, at the present time a great cultural effort is being made. We are no longer in the epoch when an open conflict existed between these different languages.




The economic situation appears to be improving notably. The European newspapers



are talking about the ‘take-off of Morocco” and of a ‘forced march’ towards modernisation...





When one arrives in Morocco one has the impression that one is already in Europe: clean cities, roads and airports; Morocco is at the height of being built: both in the north and in the south of the country new buildings go up in the space of a few weeks. Great projects, social projects as well, are being developed. A great dynamism can be felt; but does this bring real advantages to the people? As soon as one leaves the city centres or the motorways sprawling outskirts open up: they, too, are growing dizzily, and often they are hidden by walls. The whole of this development seems to be done for a high-level tourist plan.




One can also see a very strong growth in the airline the RAM, which has taken over all of the segment of the market of sub-Saharan Africa. Casablanca is becoming increasingly an inescapable stop-off to go from Europe or America towards all these countries of the south. All of this is an indicator of a great openness to the African continent, in connection with Europe. All the airports of the country are in a stage of expansion in order to receive the flood of tourists that are coming to discover the country, which is so near to Europe and so full of potential, but there is the great danger of seeing the tourist property agencies transform certain cities and magnificent sites. There is a real risk that one will come to visit Morocco without meeting one Moroccan!




Is economic growth creating tensions within traditional society?





The economy is developing but not in pace with the population, which continues to grow; this means that there are regular demonstrations of unemployed young people with school leaving certificates; often young people just dream of going to work in Europe; and this is even more the case because all of them have relatives, far away to varying degrees, who work in one of those countries and who come back to their homeland during the summer holidays with a pile of presents. Thus very many young people constantly ask them to help them to obtain a visa and a work contract! The population is increasingly urbanised because the shortage of water means that agriculture is constantly in decline; and with every drought the countryside empties even though a major effort is being made to bring electricity to even the smallest of villages, as well as water.




In this scenario how do you see the role of the monarchy?



What is the specific contribution of Morocco in the large and multi-faceted Arab world?





The King appoints the prime minister and chooses the government for him. There are also two houses of parliament to ensure democracy. But the role of the King is far from being honorary. At the level of international policy, Morocco is in great difficulty with Algeria which is preventing Morocco from being a part of the Organisation of African Unity; the UMA (Union du Maghreb arabe) is constantly in preparation but it will not see the light of day for as long as the situation remains as it is. Given this state of affairs, Morocco, at an economic level, looks in a decisive way to Europe and to the United States of America. At a diplomatic level as well the country is very important if one considers the number of embassies and consuls that are here from all the continents of the world. There is even a papal nuncio whose embassy is concerned only with Morocco!










H. E. Msgr. Vincent Landel





Born in 1941 in Meknès (Morocco), he took his licence in teaching mathematics, physics and chemistry. A religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Bétharram since 1960, he was ordained a priest in 1969, and was the head of colleges and schools for twenty-five years in Morocco and France. He was also provincial and assistant general of his Congregation for ten years; he has been


a co-adjutant since the year 2000, and on 5 May 2001 he was consecrated Archbishop of Rabat.