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Moroccan Catholics in turmoil before Pope’s visit

This is the crush at the entrance of the cathedral of Rabat: everyone wants his access ticket for the visit of Pope Francis, expected Saturday and Sunday by a cosmopolitan community revived by an influx of sub-Saharan followers.

” We’re lucky ! The pope comes to Africa, he will bring together communities from all walks of life in a Muslim country: it’s extraordinary,” says Ernould Kumba, 27, from Congo-Brazzaville.

On March 10, the first Sunday of Lent, a compact crowd crowded under the nave. There are some rare white faces, tourists and “expats” – as Father Daniel names the Europeans who came to work or enjoy their retirement under the sun of Morocco.

All the others come from different African countries to study, work or try to reach the European continent.

“They bring a new breath, I have never seen a church so young, with an average age of 30-35 years,” enthuses Father Daniel, head of the parish of Rabat.

Morocco has 30,000 to 35,000 Catholics, ten times less than before its independence, in 1956. There were 200 churches at the time of French and Spanish colonization, it remains today 44.

The churches were saved from abandonment by the influx of sub-Saharans, arrived in two waves: students in the 90s, attracted by the system of scholarships, migrants for ten years, driven by their dreams of European Eldorado.

“Living Church”

«Julienne, Ivory Coast. Jason, Guinea Bissau. Welcome, Benin. Yvette, Gabon. Jean-Pierre, Guinea Conakry … ” The 42 baptized who are advancing towards the altar all come from the south of the Sahara.

“You come from all peoples and from all countries,” says Bishop Romero, the bishop of Rabat who preaches with a strong Spanish accent. The choristers in white and black dresses sing a song on an African rhythm. A reading in Portuguese precedes the prayer of Our Father in Arabic.

“It’s nice to see a church alive and full,” said Florence, a 37-year-old Parisian practitioner who is visiting Rabat.

Lizzie, 20, prepares her baptism with fervor: this Ivorian student was “not very religious” when she lived in Abidjan but “everything has changed” since she studied law in Morocco. “It’s not easy here, and faith is a great help,” she says.

A reading evokes the “misery, sorrow, oppression” of the nomadic peoples driven out of Egypt. The faithful listen attentively, many live the daily roughness of exile and attend the church to “create brotherhood”, as said Jean-Baptiste, also Ivorian.

“Some Muslims think that we do not have the same god and we will end up in hell but the pope’s visit will be an opportunity to bring together communities and religions”, hopes Cyrvine, 24 years old. This Congolese student sings with the choir and waits “with impatience” the pontiff.

“The pressure is rising,” says Ernould Kumba, in charge of the rehearsals of the singers.

“Unique opportunity”

Pope Francis was invited by the king and “Commander of the Faithful” Mohammed VI for a visit “placed under the sign of the development of interreligious dialogue,” according to a press note issued by the Moroccan authorities. For the Archbishop of Rabat, it is a “unique opportunity” to show “that we value more what unites us than what divides us”.

“To receive the pope is proof of openness to a Muslim country,” said Xavier, a 45-year-old Frenchman who introduces himself as a “Buddhist” who came to Mass with a friend.

“It’s true that compared to other Arab countries we have a certain freedom,” says Mohamed. This 70-year-old Moroccan man converted to Catholicism in 2016, “convinced by the preachings of Brother Rachid”, son of a Moroccan imam and host of the satellite channel Al Hayat TV, based in Egypt.

“It’s not always easy, but I do not hide,” says Mohamed with some pride. The parish team, it prefers “avoid highlighting the Moroccan faithful” because “it is a sensitive subject”.

At the end of the Moroccan Constitution, “Islam is the religion of the State, which guarantees to all the free exercise of cults” but the Penal Code punishes “proselytism” from six months to three years in prison.

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