Moroccan Convert Serving 15 Years for His Faith

Christian’s sentence for ‘proselytism,’ burning poles called excessive.

ISTANBUL, September 17 (CDN) — Nearly five years into the prison sentence of the only Christian in Morocco serving time for his faith, Moroccan Christians and advocates question the harsh measures of the Muslim state toward a man who dared speak openly about Jesus.

By the end of December Jamaa Ait Bakrim, 46, will have been in prison for five years at Morocco’s largest prison, Prison Centrale, in Kenitra. An outspoken Christian convert, Bakrim was sentenced to 15 years prison for “proselytizing” and destroying “the goods of others” in 2005 after burning two defunct utility poles located in front of his private business in a small town in south Morocco.

Advocates and Moroccan Christians said, however, that the severity of his sentence in relation to his misdemeanor shows that authorities were determined to put him behind bars because he persistently spoke about his faith.

“He became a Christian and didn’t keep it to himself,” said a Moroccan Christian and host for Al Hayat Television who goes only by his first name, Rachid, for security reasons. “He shared it with people around him. In Morocco, and this happened to me personally, if you become a Christian you may be persecuted by your family. If you keep it to yourself, no one will bother you. If you share it with anyone else and start speaking about it, that’s another story.”

Rachid fled Morocco in 2005 due to mounting pressure on him and his family. He is a wanted man in his country, but he said it is time for people to start speaking up on behalf of Bakrim, whom he said has “zeal” for his faith and speaks openly about it even in prison.

“Our Moroccan brothers and sisters suffer, and we just assume things will be OK and will somehow change later by themselves,” said Rachid. “They will never change if we don’t bring it to international attention.”

Authorities in Agadir tried Bakrim for “destruction of the goods of others,” which is punishable with up to 20 years in prison, and for proselytism under Article 220, which is punishable with six months to three years in prison.

“Jamaa is a manifestation of a very inconvenient truth for Moroccan authorities: there are Moroccan converts to Christianity,” said Logan Maurer, a regional director at U.S.-based advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC). “The government wants to ignore this, suppress it, and when – as in Jamaa’s case – the problem won’t go away, they do whatever they can to silence it.”

Proselytism in Morocco is generally defined as using means of seduction or exploiting weakness to undermine the faith of Muslims or to convert them to another religion.

Recently Morocco has used the law to punish any proclamation of non-Muslim faith, contradicting its pledge to allow freedom to manifest one’s faith under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts in the country. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.

Between March and June authorities expelled 128 foreign Christians in an effort to purge the country of any foreign Christian influences. In April nearly 7,000 Muslim religious leaders backed the deportations by signing a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.

In the same time period, Moroccan authorities applied pressure on Moroccan converts to Christianity through interrogations, searches and arrests. Christians on the ground said that, although these have not continued, there is still a general sense that the government is increasingly intolerant of Christian activities.  

“They are feeling very bad,” said Rachid. “I spoke to several of them, and they say things are getting worse…They don’t feel safe. They are under a lot of disappointment, and [they are] depressed because the government is putting all kinds of pressure on them.”


From Europe to Prison

Bakrim, a Berber from southern Morocco, studied political science and law in Rabat. After completing his studies he traveled to Europe, where he became a Christian. Realizing that it would be difficult to live out his new-found faith in Morocco, in 1993 he applied for political asylum in the Netherlands, but immigration authorities refused him and expelled him when his visa expired.

In 1995 Bakrim was prosecuted for “proselytizing,” and spent seven months in jail in the city of Goulemine. In April 1996 he was transferred to a mental hospital in Inezgane, where authorities ordered he undergo medical treatments. He was released in June. The psychiatric treatment caused side-effects in his behavior and made it difficult for him to control his hands and legs for a period of time, sources told Compass.

Two years later authorities put him in jail again for a year because he publicly displayed a cross, according to an article by Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdo published in January 2005.

“He has a zeal about his religion,” said Rachid. “He never denied his faith through all these things, and he even preached the gospel in prison and the psychiatric place where they held him … They tried to shut him [up], and they couldn’t.”

In 2001 Bakrim again attracted attention by painting crosses and writing Bible verses in public view at his place of business, which also served as his home, according to the French-language weekly. Between 2001 and 2005 he reportedly wrote to the municipality of Massa, asking officials to remove two wooden utility posts that were no longer in use, as they were blocking his business. When authorities didn’t respond, Bakrim burned them.

During his defense at the Agadir court in southern Morocco, Bakrim did not deny his Christian faith and refuted accusations that he had approached his neighbors in an attempt to “undermine their Muslim faith.”

The judge ruled that “the fact that Jamaa denies accusations of proselytism is inconsistent with his previous confession in his opening statement when he proclaimed he was the son of Christ, and that he wished that Moroccans would become Christians,” according to Le Journal Hebdo.

Bakrim did not appeal the court sentence. Though there have been other cases of Christians imprisoned for their faith, none of their sentences has been as long as Bakrim’s.

“They will just leave him in the prison so he dies spiritually and psychologically,” said Rachid. “Fifteen years is too much for anything they say he did, and Jamaa knows that. The authorities know he’s innocent. So probably they gave him this sentence so they can shut him [up] forever.”

Rachid asked that Christians around the world continue to lobby and pray that their Moroccan brothers and sisters stand firm and gain their freedoms.

“The biggest need is to stand with the Moroccan church and do whatever it takes to ask for their freedom of religion,” said Rachid.

Report from Compass Direct News

Moroccan Islamists Use Facebook to Target Christians

Local Christians sense authorities, extremists and society in collusion against them.

RABAT, Morocco, June 17 (CDN) — Moroccan Christians say Muslim extremists in the country are aiding and encouraging the government to pursue them by exposing and vilifying them on social networking site Facebook.

Facebook user Gardes Maroc Maroc has posted 32 image collages featuring dozens of Christian converts, calling them “hyena evangelists” or “wolves in lamb’s skins” who are trying to “shake the faith of Muslims.” That terminology on the website, which is in Arabic, matches that of Morocco’s anti-proselytizing law, which outlaws efforts to “shake the faith of Muslims.”

The online images depict Christian converts and their families from across the country and include details about their roles and activities in churches, their personal addresses and anecdotal stories attempting to malign them.

“These are some pics of Moroccan convert hyenas,” reads one image.

Since March, the Moroccan government has expelled more than 100 foreign Christians for alleged “proselytizing.” Authorities failed to give Christians deportation orders or enough time to settle their affairs before they left.

Observers have called this a calculated effort to purge the historically moderate Muslim country, known for its progressive policies, of all Christian elements – both foreign and national.

Amid a national media campaign to vilify Christians in Morocco, more than 7,000 Muslim clerics signed a statement denouncing all Christian activities and calling foreign Christians’ aid work “religious terrorism.”

On the Facebook page, Gardes Maroc Maroc makes a particularly strident call to Moroccan authorities to investigate adoptive parents of children from the village of Ain Leuh, 50 miles south of Fez. The user claims that local Christians under orders of “foreign missionaries” were attempting to adopt the children so missionary efforts would not “go in vain.”

On March 8, the Moroccan government expelled 26 Christian foreign staff members and parents working at Village of Hope in Ain Leuh.

Now efforts against national Christians have gained momentum. One image on the Facebook page challenged the Islamic Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments, saying, “Evangelist hyenas are deriding your Ministry.” The page with the images claimed that Christians had rented out an apartment belonging to that government ministry.

An entire page was dedicated to a well-known Christian TV personality in the Middle East, Rashid Hmami, and his family. The user also inserted pictures of hyenas next to those of Christians, presumably to indicate their danger to the nation.


National Christians Threatened

Moroccan Christians told Compass that authorities had begun harassing them even before the forced deportations of foreigners, and that pressure from officials only intensified in March and April.

Since the deportations started in early March, it seems that authorities, extremists and society as a whole have colluded against them, local Christians said. Dozens of Christians have been called to police stations for interrogation. Many of them have been threatened and verbally abused.

“They mocked our faith,” said one Moroccan Christian who requested anonymity. “They didn’t talk nicely.”  

Authorities interrogated the convert for eight hours and followed him for three weeks in March and April, he said. During interrogation, he added, local police told him they were prepared to throw him in jail and kill him.

Another Moroccan Christian reported that a Muslim had taken him to court because of his Christian activities. Most Moroccan Christians that spoke to Compass said the attitudes of their Muslim relatives had shifted, and many have been kicked out of their homes or chosen to leave “to not create problems” for their families.

Moroccan converts meet in house churches. Some of them have stopped meeting until the pressure subsides.

“The government is testing the reactions,” said Moroccan lawyer Abdel Adghirni of the recent pressure on Christians.

The lawyer, known as one of the strongest defenders of Berber rights in Morocco, said that although the government’s recent reactions seem regressive, they are part of the nation’s societal transformation process.

“The government is trying to dominate,” said Adghirni. “They are defending themselves. They feel the wind of change. All of this is normal for me – like a complex chemistry that activates as different elements come into contact. Things are moving.”


Congressional Hearing

In an effort to alert U.S. Congress to the sudden turn against religious tolerance in Morocco, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission is holding congressional hearings today on the deportations of foreign Christians from the country.

Earlier today, the National Clergy Council held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to congratulate the Moroccan government on religious tolerance. Organizers of the congressional hearings said they view the council’s press conference as an effort to counter the hearings.

The Rev. Rob Schenck, who heads the council, has had numerous exchanges with Moroccan Islamic leaders and in early April met with the Moroccan ambassador to the United States.

“I have enjoyed a close friendship of several years with the ambassador,” Schenck stated on his website.

Organizers of the congressional hearings have said they are baffled that the National Clergy Council, and in particular Schenck, would speak so highly of the Moroccan government at a time when it is in such blatant violation of human rights.

“There’s good and bad in every country, but what Morocco has done on the whole to advance religious liberty in that region of the world is extraordinary,” Schenck said in a media statement yesterday on Christian Newswire. “We hope to present a fair and balanced picture of this unusual country.”

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said that the Moroccan government has deported nearly 50 U.S. citizens.

“In spite of this, the U.S. government has pledged $697.5 million to Morocco over the next five years through the Millennium Challenge Corporation,” he said. Wolf is advocating that the United States withhold the nearly $697.5 million in aid that it has pledged to Morocco.  

“It is inappropriate for American taxpayer money to go to a nation which disregards the rights of American citizens residing in Morocco and forcibly expels Americans without due process of law,” he said.

Among those appearing at the hearing today is Dutch citizen Herman Boonstra, leader of Village of Hope, who was expelled in March. Boonstra and his wife were forced to leave eight adopted children in Morocco. Moroccan authorities have refused re-entry for the couple, as they have for all deported Christian foreigners.

Lawyer Adghirni said he believes Morocco cannot survive and develop economically – and democratically – without national diversity.

“We can’t be free without Christians,” Adghirni said. “The existence of Christians among us is the proof of liberty.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Moroccan Authorities Raid Bible Study, Arrest Christians

Order to detain 18 nationals, deport U.S. citizen apparently came from highest levels.

MARSEILLES, France, February 9 (CDN) — A large, military-led team of Moroccan authorities raided a Bible study in a small city southeast of Marrakech last week, arresting 18 Moroccans and deporting a U.S. citizen, area Christian leaders said.

Approximately 60 officers from the Moroccan security services on Thursday afternoon (Feb. 4) raided the home of a Christian in Amizmiz, a picturesque city of 10,000 mainly Berber people 56 kilometers (35 miles) southeast of Marrakech. A church Bible study was in progress at the home with visitors from western and southern Morocco, the leaders said.

Five of the 18 people held for 14 hours were small children, two of them infants no more than 6 months old. The other small children ranged from 20 months to 4 years old, and also detained was the visiting 16-year-old nephew of one of the participants.

The Christian leaders said authorities interrogated participants in the Bible study for 14 hours. The authorities filmed the interrogations with digital video cameras and cell phones.

The leader of the Christian group, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said the raiding party was unusually large. It included an accompaniment of 15 vehicles led by a colonel and two captains.

“It’s the first time in our current Moroccan church history that the Moroccan government used this size of a legion to attack a small Christian meeting,” he said. “All the time they kept repeating that this was ordered personally by the new Moroccan Justice Minister [Mohamed Naciri] and by the highest level General of the Gendarmerie [Housni Benslimane].”

Quoting a statement by the Interior Ministry, the state-run Maghreb Arabe Presse news agency reported that a “foreign missionary” had been arrested for trying to “spread evangelist creed in the Kingdom and locate new Moroccan nationals for recruitment.”

The statement added that the raid took place “following information on the organization of a secret meeting to initiate people into Christianity, which would shake Muslims’ faith and undermine the Kingdom’s religious values.”

The U.S. citizen, whose name has not been released, was deported immediately after interrogation. The Christian leaders said the visiting Moroccans were sent back to their homes in western and southern Morocco.

Authorities seized Bibles, books, two laptops, a digital camera and one cell phone, they said.

“I don’t think this number of Moroccan government forces was ever used even against Muslim fundamentalists,” the leader of the Christian group said.

Conflicting Codes

Overall, the North African country has a history of religious tolerance. Morocco’s constitution provides for freedom to practice one’s religion, but Article 220 of the Moroccan Penal Code criminalizes any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert to another religion.

In its 2009 international religious freedom report, the U.S. Department of State noted that on April 2, 2009, a Moroccan government spokesman asserted that freedom of religion does not include freedom to choose one’s faith.

“The fight against Christian proselytizing in accordance with law cannot be considered among human rights abuses,” the Moroccan government spokesman said, “for it is an action aimed at preventing attempts to undermine the country’s immutable religious values. The freedom of belief does not mean conversion to another religion.”

Morocco is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

In early December last year Moroccan police expelled five Christian foreigners for “attending a forbidden meeting,” according to an unnamed government official. The five men were involved in a training seminar for 17 Christians in northern Morocco.

“We were highly surprised that Morocco dared to arrest and expel us,” said one of the deported Christians, noting that only Christians were present at the meetings. “The police told us that we were holding a forbidden meeting, but we are friends just coming together for fellowship and for teaching each other. Is that forbidden in Morocco?”

The deportations were a serious violation of religious rights, the Christian said.

“The police came with 35 agents – 12 of them invaded the building, and the rest of the police surrounded the premises just to arrest 17 friends coming together for fellowship,” he said. “We were held in custody for one day and night, and we were interrogated for many hours, until 4:30 the next morning.”

On March 29, 2009, the Moroccan government announced that it had expelled five female Christians for attempting to “proselytize,” although sources said they were foreign visitors merely attending a Bible study with fellow Christians. The accused women were five of 23 tourists, expatriates and Moroccans arrested in Casablanca on March 28 during what the Interior Ministry called a “proselytizing” meeting involving Moroccan citizens.

Police seized numerous pieces of evangelistic “propaganda,” including Arabic books and videos. But a source told Compass that everyone in attendance was a Christian and that they had gathered merely for a Bible study, which he said falls within Morocco’s constitutional right of freedom to express one’s faith.

The authorities interrogated 12 others, 11 of them Moroccan citizens, for participating in the women’s Bible study in the apartment of a local Christian leader in Casablanca. They released them early the following morning, returning them home in unmarked police cars, according to the state department report.

“The authorities reportedly pressured the women to return to Islam, mocked their Christian faith, questioned why they left Islam to become Christians, and asked if there were other Christians in their families,” the report states.

A Christian who works in the country told Compass that Moroccan Christians do not see themselves as contradicting national values.

“Moroccan Christians are proud to be Moroccan and desire the freedom to be legally recognized by the government,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News