ROME – Pope Francis hits the road this weekend for an overnight trip to Morocco, where he will once again have the opportunity to shine a light on issues close to his heart such as interreligious dialogue, immigration and a church that not only occasionally goes to the peripheries, but that has its center in them.
With an estimated 99 percent of Morocco’s population being Muslim, the local Catholic Church is small, numbering just around 40,000 faithful, a majority of whom are immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa either working or studying in the country.
“Pope Francis has insisted that the Church today has to be one that goes out towards the peripheries,” said Brother Manuel Corullon, a Spanish Franciscan who’s been in Morocco since 2001 and serves as head of the Franciscan Custody there.
“In this sense, I believe our church is one of peripheries, that lives in interreligious dialogue with Islam, as a minority, made up mostly of foreigners,” Corullon said.
The local church, the priest said, is one that is at the service of the poor and of the Moroccan people through many projects of social and cultural development.
By going to this African nation, Corullon told Crux, Francis is extolling a church that is “at the border, and going to the outskirts.”
This will be the second-ever papal visit to Morocco, as the Argentine is following in the footsteps of St. John Paul II, who stopped there during his visit to the Maghreb region in 1985. A New York Times report at the time quoted a Vatican official describing that trip as “an experiment.”
Francis will be in Morocco’s capital Rabat for just 27 hours, but he has a packed schedule. Among other things, he’ll meet with local authorities; visit a center for the training of Imams; meet with immigrants at the diocesan Caritas center; go to a rural center for social services; meet with local priests and religious communities as well as the ecumenical Council of Churches, and say Mass for some 10,000 people.
Corullon is the man in charge of the liturgy for that final papal event. He believes an important moment of the trip will come when the pope and King Mohammed VI visit the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V, something many in the country reportedly are awaiting.
“This moment of encounter will be fundamental for the society, as they’re waiting to see the pope and the king embrace, as an example that dialogue between Catholics and Muslims is not only important but also possible,” Corullon said.
Francis’s dialogue efforts too, are in continuity with his predecessor, who in 1985 told some 80,000 Muslims gathered in the Mohammed V Stadium that Christians and Muslims have to accept their differences ”with humility and respect and mutual tolerance.”
”Christians and Muslims, we have generally understood each other poorly, and sometimes in the past we opposed each other and even exhausted each other in polemics and wars,” John Paul II said at the time, adding that he believed God “is asking us to change our old habits.”
Francis was invited to Morocco by King Mohammed VI, and he had originally intended to visit last December to attend a UN sponsored summit on migration in Marrakesh. However, that trip proved impossible so he’s going now, and it’s been presented by some as the last piece of a triptych of visits to Muslim-majority countries that began with his visit to Egypt in 2017, followed by his trip to United Arab Emirates earlier this year.
According to local civilian authorities, this visit is part of the “development of inter-religious dialogue.” The king is known as a prince of believers, and even though Islam is the state religion, the constitution guarantees “to all the freedom to practice their faith.”
However, proselytism is a criminal offence, as is the “rocking the faith of a Muslim or to convert him to another religion.” Both are punishable with six months to three years in prison.
The Moroccan constitution only recognizes Sunni Islam and Judaism as native to the country, even though Christianity actually arrived in the region some 500 years before Islam through the Roman empire.
Foreigners usually have more freedom to practice their faith, but local citizens can face obstacles from the government and social pressure.
According to Corullon, Christianity in Morocco today faces two big challenges: the ability to give witness, and inculturation.
“When Christians arrive in the country, they usually notice that Islam is the official religion, yes, but people are deeply religious,” he said. “This tends to awaken a religious sentiment that at one time had been dormant, as if saying, ‘If the people I live among practice their faith with this intensity, why don’t I?’”
Regarding inculturation, Corrullon explained that it’s important for Catholics in Morocco to feel they are part of a local church, one which walks with the people and is in cultural and religious dialogue with them, not a church that is only “passing by.”
For this reason, he said, the local Christian community welcomes the pope’s visit, as a sign that they too are relevant for the world, capable of saying something important and sharing a life experience of living in constant dialogue as a very small minority.
Another one key element of the visit will be the ongoing migrant crisis. Morocco is some 7 miles from Spain, so it’s become a gateway for hundreds of thousands of Africans fleeing hunger, violence and persecution, usually trying to cross the Mediterranean in unsuitable, improvised boats.
During a yet-to-air interview with a left-wing Spanish TV network, Francis is seen holding a knife that can be found at the top of fences put up by the Spanish government to keep people out. He protests the fact that the government, at the time of his interview, was banning a ship from the NGO Open Arms from reaching port after rescuing migrants at sea.
“This is a great injustice, because, why are they doing this? So that they drown,” Francis said during a segment of the interview released on Twitter.