Christian converts irk the world of Islam

Time of article published Dec 13, 2006

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By Sammy Ketz

Rabat - They might have Islamic names like Mohammed or Ali, but every Sunday these Moroccan converts to Christianity go discreetly to "church" - to the ire of Islamic militants and under the suspicious eye of police.

"There are about a thousand of us in around 50 independent churches across the big cities of the kingdom," explained Abdelhalim, who coordinates these evangelical Protestant groups in Morocco.

"As we are tolerated, but not recognised (by the state) we must, for security reasons, conduct ourselves as a clandestine organisation," said the 57-year-old, who preferred to use a pseudonym.

"As soon as a church has 20 worshippers it splits in two," said Abdelhalim, a doctor who converted to Christianity 16 years ago when he was living abroad.

Islam is the state religion in Morocco, a country of 30 million people that counts only 5 000 Jews and 1 000 Christians, according to figures given by the two groupings.

Although you cannot be sentenced if you convert to Christianity, it is illegal to proselytise under Moroccan law.

And while official Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches are recognised by Morocco, they are only for foreigners living in

the country. Moroccan Christians have no right to pray in these churches.

However when Abdelhalim returned home seven years ago, he said he was astonished by the growing number of converts to Christianity.

"At the beginning of the 1990s there were 400 of us, four years ago around 700 and today more than 1 000," he said.

Most of the converts belong to the middle classes and work in the private sector or as engineers. But these new evangelical Christians also count among their numbers craftsmen, housewives,

students and young unemployed people.

Christianity was established in North Africa in the third century AD but was supplanted by Islam in the seventh century. In the early 1990s, Christianity started to get a new foothold when

foreign missionaries passed on the word to Moroccans.

As for Morocco's main cities, seven of these "free churches" - not linked to any international Protestant church - are in Marrakesh, six in Casablanca, five in Rabat and even one in El

Ayoun, the regional capital of the western Sahara.

"Television and the Internet are very efficient methods and in our church a soldier became Christian through the Al Hayat channel," said 30-year-old Youssef, who also preferred to use a

pseudonym.

"For many of us, Islam is perceived as a social straitjacket and not as a real faith, and Christianity as a religion of tolerance and love," said the businessman, who converted at the age of 19 and was later followed by his family.

Yet in the eyes of the state they remain Muslim.

"Officialy, my son and I are Muslim," said Abdelhalim. "We hold Christian marriages and bless the young couple but this is not recognised by the state. They must go before the Muslim clergy and

marry according to Sharia (Islamic law). If they don't do this, they can be charged with adultery."

The same goes for death. "I cannot be buried in a Christian cemetery, only in a Muslim one," he said.

Jack Wald, 55, an American and pastor of the Rabat International Church - one of the "official" Christian churches - who has lived in Morocco since 2000 also cites the role of technology.

It "means that a country or religion cannot isolate itself from the rest of the world. This happened in eastern Europe and is happening in China and North Korea. The same is true with Muslim countries," he said.

"Radio, television and the Internet have opened up doors for people to hear a different message than the one the imam preaches on Fridays."

Youssef estimated that 60 percent of the Moroccan converts became Christian through personal contacts, 30 percent via television or Internet and 10 percent via missionaries.

Three evangelist Christian satellite channels which are beamed into Morocco in the Arabic language give witness accounts, hymns and prayers: Al Hayat and Saturday 7 from Cyprus, and Miracle from Canada.

Discretion is the order of the day for Morocco's Christians, with the faithful holding services in their homes, against a background of suspicion from the Islamic world.

"We have to be careful because ordinary people cannot understand that we can be Arabs without being Muslim. For us the biggest danger is ignorance," Abdelhalim said.

The Christian converts also have article 220 of the penal code hanging over their heads, which provides for prison sentences of between six months and three years for anyone who tries to

undermine a Muslim's faith or to convert him to another religion.

"I have been summoned to the police station dozens of times," said Youssef. He nonetheless says that Morocco is considered more tolerant than other Muslim countries thanks to King Mohammed VI,

who has encouraged reforms to fight poverty, boost women's rights and thwart any slide towards Islamic extremism in the kingdom.

Radouan Benchekroun, the president of the council of Muslim scholars in Casablanca is, however, unaccommodating.

"To deny one's religion, it is the biggest sin that a Muslim can commit," he said.

Islamic militants insist these conversions "are not accepted by the population," according to Lahcen Daoudi, a deputy for the Islamist Justice and Development Party.

"As long as it remains at the individual level we can turn a blind eye. The problem is on the social level. If there is proselytism or if children or teachers come to school with the Crucifix, we cannot tolerate that," Daoudi said. - Sapa-AFP

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