RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco has expelled foreign Christians who tried to convert Muslims because, as a moderate Islamic state, it wants to foster “order and calm” and avoid a clash between faiths, its Islamic affairs minister said.
The government has expelled around 100 foreign Christians since March, many of them aid workers, in what Western diplomats have called an unprecedented crackdown on undercover preaching.
“These incidents (expulsions) were prompted by the activism of some foreigners who undermined public order,” Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs Minister Ahmed Toufiq told Reuters in an interview late on Thursday.
“There are some who hide their proselytism and religious activism under the guise of other activities,” he said.
The latest expulsion was that of Spaniard Francisco Paton Millan, the head of a small energy company, who was ordered last week to leave the country for trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, church workers and European diplomats said.
The Islamist-leaning newspaper Attajdid reported on Thursday that the authorities had ordered 23 foreigners to leave last week and that this was part of a new wave of such expulsions.
Converting Muslims is a crime in Morocco, punishable by up to six months in jail, but the authorities generally expel foreigners accused of proselytising rather than take them to court to avoid publicity and criticism from abroad.
Muslims make up 99 percent of Morocco’s population and the north African country allows freedom of worship to mostly foreign Christians and a few thousand indigenous Jews.
Toufiq said Morocco was eager to foster respect and coexistence between its different faiths, but was also “protecting its religious community”.
“Morocco wants to prevent a clash or conflict between religions. It is not necessary that one religion converts believers of another religion,” he said, adding that he had explained this position to representatives of other faiths.
Aid groups and Western diplomats say up to 70 foreign aid workers were expelled in early March for trying to convert local Muslims, but government officials publicly acknowledged only 16 such expulsions, in an apparent attempt to avoid bad publicity.
Before this year, Morocco had occasionally expelled small numbers of missionaries, many funded by U.S. evangelical churches, but the March move against organisations operating in the kingdom for many years suggests the Rabat government has toughened its line.
Toufiq did not confirm this but spoke of the dangers of religious strife and the need to preserve order.
“War between religions is very dangerous and the world today does not need that. What do Christians prefer? A handful of converted Moroccans or order and calm among Moroccans who are impervious to foreign meddling in their faith?” he asked.
Morocco is the only Muslim country whose king is both head of state and Commander of the Faithful (Amir al Mouminine), with ultimate responsibility for spiritual life.
The threat posed by Islamic extremists has led the government to step up its oversight of religious affairs and strengthen the official, moderate Malekite form of Islam.
“Moroccans cherish tolerance between religions but bridle at the impression that one foreigner is intruding into their community and that their religious community might be brought to the verge of collapse by a single intruder,” Toufiq added.