Pope Francis heads to Muslim-majority Morocco ‘as a pilgrim of peace’

Posted on Mar 28, 2019

by Gerard O’Connell*, America, the Jesuit Review, March 28, 2019

On eve of visit, Pope Francis tells Moroccans: ‘I come as a pilgrim of peace and fraternity, in a world that greatly needs it.’

Continuing to write a new page in Christian-Muslim relations, Pope Francis will visit the Kingdom of Morocco this weekend, March 30 and 31. He goes to promote interreligious dialogue, to foster peace and fraternity between Christians and Muslims, and to provide encouragement to the tiny Christian community of this majority-Muslim country in North Africa.

Image: In this 2016 file photo, a super moon rises above the roof of the Mohammed V mausoleum in Rabat, Morocco. Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the North African nation in March 2019. (CNS photo/Abdelhak Senna, EPA)

In this 2016 file photo, a super moon rises above the roof of the Mohammed V mausoleum in Rabat, Morocco. Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the North African nation in March 2019. (CNS photo/Abdelhak Senna, EPA)

“I come as a pilgrim of peace and fraternity, in a world that greatly needs it,” he said in a video message to the “dear people of Morocco” on the eve of his visit. He offered the traditional Muslim greeting, salaam alaikum, and thanked God “for granting me this opportunity” and King Mohammed VI of Morocco “for his kind invitation.”

Then, in words that echoed the groundbreaking document that he signed last month in Abu Dhabi with Ahmad el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque and university, the pope told them:

    • As Christians and Muslims, we believe in God the Creator and Merciful One, who has created men and women and placed them on the earth so that they might live together as brothers and sisters, respecting each other’s diversity and helping each other in their need. He has entrusted the earth—our common home—to them, to care for it responsibly and to preserve it for future generations. It will be a joy for me to share these firm convictions with you directly at our meeting in Rabat.

Moreover, he told them, “this journey also offers me the invaluable occasion to visit the Christian community in Morocco and to encourage its progress.”

he pope also confirmed that he will meet with migrants, “who represent an appeal to build together a more just and fraternal world.”

He concluded his brief message, broadcast on national television in Morocco in both Arabic and French, with these words: “Dear Moroccan friends, I already express my heartfelt thanks for your welcome, and above all for your prayers. And I assure you of my own prayers for you and for your dear country.”

The visit to Morocco is his second in two months to an Islamic country where there are almost no native-born Christians today, even though Christianity first came to this land between the second and third centuries. Today, almost all the Christians living here are migrants from other countries, mainly from Europe and other parts of Africa.

Pope Francis comes at the invitation of King Mohammed VI, “the commander of the faithful” in this land, and will be welcomed by the kingdom’s two Catholic bishops, both of whom were born in Spain.

A mere 23,000 Catholics of many nationalities live in this country of 35 million people, about one-tenth the number of faithful who were in the country when Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956. They are served by 46 priests and 178 women religious.

“We are a truly ‘Catholic’ people…who seek to live ‘unity in diversity,’” the archbishop of Rabat, Cristóbal López Romero, a Salesian priest who worked for two decades in Paraguay before coming here, told the Italian missionary magazine Mondo e Missione on the eve of the visit. Maintaining unity is no easy task, he said, “because every year some 25 percent of the Christians leave and more arrive.”

The visit has an important dimension of interreligious dialogue and brotherhood between the different faiths in this land where the Constitution guarantees to everyone the freedom to practice one’s faith. At the same time, however, conversion from Islam to Christianity is forbidden. It is a criminal offense to proselytize or convert a Moroccan, punishable by a prison sentence of between six months and three years. Alluding to this, Archbishop López told the Spanish Catholic radio station COPE that the church is not seeking “rights for Christians in Morocco,” but “we would be happy if all the Moroccan people could [enjoy] all the freedoms, both of religion and conscience.”

In early March, Archbishop López and the archbishop of Tangier, Santiago Agrelo Martínez, O.F.M., also Spanish-born, expressed the hope that the pope’s visit would help highlight the situation of migrants in this land, which has become a main transit point for many migrants trying to reach Europe. Since the beginning of this year, some 47,000 of them have traveled by sea to Spain, mostly from the port of Tangier, but at least 564 have died on the way, according to the International Organization of Migration.

Francis is the second pope to come to Morocco. St. John Paul II visited in 1985 at the invitation of King Mohammed V. The king saw him as “a moral voice in the world,” Cardinal Francis Arinze, who accompanied the pope, recalled in an interview after that visit. It was the Polish pope’s first visit to a majority-Muslim country. He stopped over for six hours in Morocco at the end of a visit to several other African countries and was given a warm welcome on the streets of Casablanca, with banners that said, “Welcome Holy Father to the land of Islam!” At the king’s invitation, John Paul II spoke for 45 minutes to 80,000 young Muslims, all dressed in white, at the stadium in Casablanca. It was a landmark speech that emphasized the highest ideals of Christianity and Islam. In 1997, Morocco and the Holy See established diplomatic relations.

The Jesuit pope has already visited eight majority-Muslim countries. He will spend most of two days in Morocco and will reside at the Holy See’s embassy in the port city of Rabat, the country’s capital.

He comes as “a servant of hope,” as the motto for his visit makes clear. He comes on the 800th anniversary of St. Francis of Assisi’s meeting with Sultan al-Malik al Kāmil of Egypt and also the 800th anniversary of the presence of Franciscans in this land, and will no doubt refer to this milestone in his talks.

Pope Francis will arrive at the Rabat airport of Rabat at two o’clock on Saturday afternoon and will be welcomed by the king, who traces his ancestry to the Prophet Mohammed.

The rest of the day is essentially a state visit. It involves a visit to the royal palace, where Francis will be given an official welcome as head of the Vatican City State; later in the day, the pope will have a private meeting with King Mohammed VI. In a letter to Francis on the sixth anniversary of his election, the king not only wished him “good health, happiness and greater success in his noble mission to spread human values” but also expressed his determination to continue working with the pope to uphold “noble religious and spiritual values shared by humanity, values that promote peace, tolerance and coexistence and reject all forms of ignorance, hate and extremism.”

Afterward, the pope will ride to the Esplanade of the Hassan II Mosque and address the Moroccan people in a ceremony that will be aired live on national television. He will deliver it in Italian, but with simultaneous translation in Arabic and French.

From there, Francis will visit the Mohammed V Mausoleum and the Mohammed VI Institute for imams and preachers, which was inaugurated in 2015 and plays a role in the formation of imams from Arabic, European and African countries (especially Tunisia, Mali, Ivory Coast and Guinea). There, accompanied by the king, he will greet the students of the institute in the presence of the minister of Islamic Affairs. Neither he nor the king are scheduled to speak, but they will listen to testimonies from two students—one African, the other European—and to religious chants in the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions.

He will conclude his first day in Morocco by visiting the diocesan Caritas headquarters, where he will greet migrants from many countries.

He will devote his second day in Morocco to the tiny Christian community. He begins the day by visiting a rural social service center at Tamara, on the outskirts of the city, which was first managed by the Jesuits but is today run by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.

From there he will go to St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rabat, where he will address priests, women and men religious and representatives of the other Christian creeds. Afterward, he will have lunch with the bishops of Morocco, and, before returning to Rome, will celebrate Mass for around 10,000 migrants in the Prince Moulay Abdellah Sports Complex. It will be the largest Mass ever celebrated in this country.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of Pope Francis.]

* Gerard O’Connell is America’s Vatican correspondent.