Evangelist inroads in Muslim Morocco
In the past few years, increasing numbers of Westerners have been converting to Islam. Agence France Presse recently reported annual figures in France alone of 30,000 to 50,000. But a new phenomenon – largely unreported in the Western media – is occurring: Muslims, especially in the Maghreb (north-west Africa) are becoming Christians.
The controversy over the conversions has been most acute in Morocco. Since the beginning of the year there have been numerous articles in newspapers such as Le Matin, La Gazette du Maroc, Le Journal Hebdomadaire, and even business magazine La Vie Economique and political weekly Telquel have written about this "greatest danger."
According to most reports, the culprits are American evangelical missionaries operating in major cities such as Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech and Fez to remote areas in the mountains or the countryside.
The statistics differ wildly: Missionaries are reported to number anywhere from 150, according to French weekly newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur, to the 800-plus figure most often used. Converts are said to number anywhere from 7,000 to 58,000. These discrepancies are easily explained by the fact that both missionaries and converts have to stay constantly below the radar.
Even though Morocco is a much more tolerant country than say Saudi Arabia regarding freedom of religion, it nonetheless imprisons anyone trying to convert a Muslim for up to three years.
Karen Thomas Smith, one of the four officially registered American pastors in the country explains that because of this missionaries have to pass for businessmen or officials from NGOs.
THE RECENT visit of the American televangelist Josh McDowell, invited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and received by King Mohammed VI, has sparked lots of conspiracy theories. In fact, Le Journal Hebdomadaire reported on January 8 that this evangelization campaign was part of US President George W. Bush's campaign in the current war. Unsurprisingly, the article pointed out that this was also the goal of the neocons and the Zionists.
Nationalist MP Abdelhamid Aouad went even further when he declared that the evangelists' ultimate goal was to convert 10 percent of the Moroccan population by 2020. He even raised this issue in the Moroccan Parliament and asked the minister of Islamic affairs what the government was doing about the massive evangelization underway. Despite the minister's assurance that there was nothing to worry about, in March the authorities deported on "immigration grounds," a South African church representative who had been in the kingdom since 1999.
Also, a March "confidential" report ordered by the government on the topic of conversion and cited by La Gazette du Maroc, confirmed that there were indeed around 800 foreign missionaries in the kingdom. Qualified as "top-notch proselytizers," they used all available means such as Web sites, radios, satellite TV, video and audio tapes and books to succeed in their mission. Indeed, plenty of bookstores in Morocco carry translations of the Bible printed in the US and in French. According to one pastor, some missionaries also openly distribute on the streets of Casablanca leaflets about Christianity mostly meant for young people and promising them "a better life."
CLEARLY, THE evangelists are focusing their energies on the young and the poor, but that's not the whole picture. Another target, according to Pastor Jean-Luc Blanc are the intellectuals and the privileged. However, there is no typical profile of a convert. On March 5, the French daily Le Monde published numerous interviews with converts in Morocco and Algeria.
Yacine, a 30-something Moroccan executive who is very happy about the recent publicity about converts, said: "The essential point is that one talks openly about Moroccan Christians. It is proof that it exists and that it is possible. No matter what they say about us. The taboo is lifted."
Another convert in his 30s, Abu Ghali, pointed out that most conversions are initiated by Moroccans themselves and added: "If Moroccans are given the opportunity to compare and choose, then you'll see lots of them going towards Christianity."
But by far the most striking testimony comes from a 45-year-old Algerian convert called Myriam. In 1985, she was a very pious Muslim and had just learned that her best friend had been hiding that she was a Christian. At first she decided that her friend was "impure" and that she would not talk to her ever again. Then she "decided to pray for her friend to come back to Islam" and, finally, in 1987 Myriam decided to read the Bible and converted. She has since received numerous death threats and had to eventually leave Algeria in 1994 for France where she studied theology. Today, Myriam is a pastor in the South of France.
The Arab press has been quick to accuse the US evangelists for the massive conversion numbers, therefore playing into the hands of the Islamists who advocate an end to the semi-freedom of religion in Morocco. But this assumption is wrong because as many observers emphasized, some Muslims are disillusioned by the crimes committed in the name of Islam, especially in Algeria by the Islamists and al-Qaida's terrorist acts and are looking for something else.