Pope Francis will visit Morocco as ‘Servant of Hope’

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Pope Francis will make an apostolic visit to the North African nation of Morocco from 30-31 March 2019. This will be the second majority-Muslim country that the Holy Father is visiting in as many months. Many of the key themes of his papacy are expected to come to the fore during his short visit. Russell Pollitt SJ is in Morocco ahead of the visit and writes from the capital city, Rabat.

The streets of Rabat, the capital city of Morocco, are lined with the country’s flag, as one drives from the small airport to the city centre. The roads are immaculately clean, security forces are visible — especially around the capital’s Cathedral of St Peter ­— and the sidewalks neatly trimmed. Things are much greener than one would have imagined. Morocco is, perhaps, famous for the 1942 American romantic drama, Casablanca.

It is in Rabat that Pope Francis will be spending his weekend when he becomes the second pontiff to visit the North African nation. Pope John Paul II visited Morocco en route to the Maghreb in 1985.

This will be Francis’ second visit to a Muslim country in as many months. In early February, he became the first pope ever to make an official visit to the UAE when he went to Abu Dhabi on an official visit.

The Vatican has also released an official logo bearing the motto for his trip — as a ‘Servant of Hope’ to the North African nation. According to Vatican News this was also the title of the pastoral letter given to the pope when the bishops of North Africa visited Rome in 2015.

The Moroccan population is estimated to be 99% Muslim. There are only about 40,000 Catholics in the country ­— which is made up of 35.7 million people. Most of the Christians are not Moroccans, but immigrants from other African countries who have chosen to make Morocco their home.

It should not surprise that Pope Francis has chosen to visit Morocco at the invitation of the King, Mohammed VI. He is — and has been since the beginning of his pontificate — a pope of the peripheries. By visiting Morocco, he will be visiting a very small and perhaps isolated Christian community. But, this is certainly not the only reason why he is travelling to Morocco.

Other important issues which are close to Francis are expected to be addressed. These include interreligious dialogue, religious freedom and the plight of migrants and refugees; who often use Morocco as a passageway in the hope of a brighter future, in Europe, for them and their families.

The migration crisis is a perpetual concern for Pope Francis. Early in his papacy, he visited the island of Lesbos, Greece, where he threw a wreath into the Mediterranean to remember the many migrants who had lost their lives making the dangerous crossing to Europe. During the in-flight press conference on the way back to Rome, he told journalists that the journey was one of the saddest he had made. We are “seeing the greatest humanitarian tragedy after World War II”, he said.

Many Africans fleeing violence, war, unemployment, ecological disasters and persecution, try to reach Europe, going via Morocco to Spain. The two are only about 14km apart, across the Mediterranean Sea. Migrants and human rights organisations have raised concerns about how the Moroccan and Spanish authorities treat those attempting to make the crossing.

Francis is also expected to continue his work of building bridges between Christians and Muslims. When the pope was in the UAE, he signed a document on peace and coexistence between Christians and Muslims with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar.

Francis, like John Paul II, believes that Christians and Muslims have to accept their differences with humility, respect and tolerance. His encounter with the Moroccan King, Mohammed VI, will be an important moment in his visit. Local authorities say it will be a moment to “develop interreligious dialogue”.

The Pope is also expected to address issues around religious freedom during his two-day visit.

Morocco, in its constitution, only recognises Judaism and Sunni Islam. Foreigners are generally free to practice their faith, whatever it is. But for Moroccans themselves, the choice is not always easy. They have difficulties with the government and face a certain amount of social pressure. The other difficult is that proselytising is still a criminal offence in Morocco.

Finally, the Holy Father will offer the small and largely migrant Christian community hope and assure them that they are not irrelevant but very much part of the global Church.

It is small Christian communities in places like Morocco, that not only keep the Christian faith alive but live in constant interreligious dialogue with their majority Muslim brothers and sisters.

Although the Holy Father is only in Morocco for two days and one night, he has a packed schedule. This includes: meeting local authorities and the ecumenical Council of Churches, meeting with migrants, visiting a centre that provides social services, visiting a training centre for imams, meeting with local priests and religious, and celebrating mass for a predicted 10,000 people in Rabat.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

 

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    Pope Francis will visit Morocco as ‘Servant of Hope’