(CNSNews.com) – The government of Morocco has launched a public relations effort to fend off criticism about its decision to expel 20 foreign Christian aid workers it accuses of trying to convert Muslims.
The expulsion order affected Christians who ran a center that has been taking in and fostering abandoned Moroccan children for 10 years.
The group issued a statement denying the accusations, and describing the wrench of 33 children being forced to say goodbye, with no prior warning, to the only parents they had known.
On Thursday the government hosted a meeting of religious leaders – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish – who all then issued statements objecting to proselytizing, the act of seeking coverts from other faiths.
“Representatives of monotheistic religions in Morocco on Thursday reiterated that the kingdom is a land of tolerance, peace and religious freedom and rejected all forms of proselytism,” the official Maghreb Arabe Presse (MAP) news agency reported.
Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui, who met with the religious figures, said the government was “thankful for their firm stand and their immediate condemnation of proselytism.”
The Russian Orthodox representative, Dmitry Orekhov, was quoted as saying, “We ourselves in Russia are facing the problem of proselytism and are willing to cooperate with Morocco to fight it.”
Earlier, Moroccan Communications Minister Khalid Naciri warned in a statement that the government would be “severe with all those who play with religious values.”
He charged that the expelled Christians “took advantage of the poverty of some families and targeted their young children, whom they took in hand, in violation of the kafala [adoption] procedures for abandoned or orphaned children.”
Naciri claimed the Morocco was “a land of openness and tolerance,” and said that the expulsions “have nothing to do with the practice of Christianity but with acts of proselytism.”
He also insisted that Christians were not being singled out, saying the warning applied to some Islamist sects too.
The 20 foreigners expelled this week included American, British, Dutch and New Zealand nationals. They were working at a place called the Village of Hope in the Atlas Mountains about 60 miles south of Fez, where the children were accommodated in homes with their foster families rather than in a dormitory-type environment.
In a statement, Village of Hope (VOH) described the eviction process as “the most painful situation imaginable,” saying parents had been given just a few hours to pack their belongings.
“The Moroccan authorities gathered the children together in the school and told them what was happening in the absence of the parents. After that, parents had to further explain to the devastated children what was about to happen. Some of the children have been with their parents for 10 years and the trauma caused was beyond description.”
VOH stressed that the authorities had not mistreated the children and were offering them temporary care. “However, parents have no idea what is to happen to their children or how they are coping and have no point of contact with the Moroccan authorities.”
The group said the authorities had produced no evidence to support the proselytizing allegations, and offered no way of appealing the decision.
“VOH fully understands that the Moroccan law prohibits people from promoting a faith other than Islam and has always sought to abide by this law and recognizes the right of the authorities to enforce this law,” the statement said.
“All parents, volunteers and visitors to VOH were required to sign a declaration stating that they will abide by the Moroccan law prohibiting evangelism.”
The group expressed concern about how the incident would tarnish Morocco’s image, and stressed that its priority was to be reunited with the children.
“This is not an issue of Islam vs. Christianity, this is an issue of families torn apart, bewildered and devastated children and heartbroken parents,” it said.
“We openly and unashamedly appeal directly to the King [Mohammed VI], as a father himself, to act with mercy and help us reach a point of compromise and reunite the 33 children with the only parents they know.”
‘Varying degrees of official restrictions’
Meanwhile the MAP news agency carried a brief report about the State Department’s annual report on human rights, which was released in Washington on Thursday.
Under the headline, “U.S. hails Morocco's efforts to promote religious tolerance,” the MAP item noted that the U.S. government report stated that the Moroccan government “continued to encourage tolerance and respect among religions.”
The quote came from a section on the treatment of Morocco’s small Jewish minority. Elsewhere in the human rights report – but not cited by the MAP agency – the State Department offered a less positive assessment.
“Non-Muslim communities openly practiced their faiths with varying degrees of official restrictions,” it said. “The law proscribes efforts to proselytize Muslims.”
It reported on an incident last year in which authorities had expelled five foreigners and interrogated citizens about their participation in a private women’s Bible study group.
“The authorities confiscated Bibles, books, cellular phones, and a computer; they reportedly pressured the women to return to Islam, mocked their Christian faith, and questioned why they left Islam,” it said.
The Christian ministry Open Doors, which maintains an annual watchlist of the 50 countries where Christians face the worst persecution, placed Morocco this year at number 37, a worsening by three places since the 2009 list.