Pope Francis in Morocco – Deja-Vu?

Pope Francis with King Mohammed VI of Morocco (R) watch a video at the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams (Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis with King Mohammed VI of Morocco (R) watch a video at the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams. (Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis visited Morocco as part of his continual crusade to foster reconciliation between the Catholic Church and Islam. His visit marks the first time a pope has set foot in Morocco since John Paul II visited in 1985. The visit is being viewed as a continuation of his trek to the Unite Arab Emirates last month when he became the first pope to set foot on the Arabian Peninsula.

The director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Italy — Abdellah Redouane, a native of Morocco – commented that Francis’ visit can help “by reminding us Christians and Muslims are not enemies, but people who can work together, showing the followers of the two religions that if the leaders meet, they embrace, why cannot we too do the same?”

That sentiment was highlighted when John Paul II addressed the Muslim youth in Morocco in 1985 and sought to reaffirm that living in true harmony with God and neighbor requires not just interaction with man but respect for his rights, too.

At that time, it is worth noting that John Paul II said: “Respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres, especially in that which concerns basic freedoms, more particularly religious freedom. They favor peace, especially in that which concerns the peoples. They help to resolve together the problems of today‘s men and women, especially of the young.”

Francis echoed these sentiments this weekend when he said: “We believe that God created human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and he calls them to live as brothers and sisters and to spread the values of goodness, love and peace. That is why freedom of conscience and religious freedom—which is not limited to freedom of worship alone, but allows all to live in accordance with their religious convictions—are inseparably linked to human dignity.”

This was a slight departure from Francis’ visit to the UAE, where he pointedly remained quiet on this prominent human rights abuse. Perhaps it was because he knew he had the Moroccan’s king’s ear on the subject. Although the death penalty for Muslims who either wish to convert to another religion or choose to become atheists is still on the books in Morocco, many may be unaware that, in February 2017, Morocco’s ruler, King Muhammad VI, pushed his government to eliminate this law. While various online journals reported that the law was abolished by the Higher Council of Ulema of Morocco, the sanction remained in force.

Part of the tragedy in the Islamic world is that many laws are embedded in sharia law, which the religious body uses to exercise a quasi-absolute authority over the Muslim faithful. In this case, the punishment for apostasy is based on the hadith (teachings attributed to the Islamic prophet Mohammed), which states, “Whoever changes his [Islamic] religion, then kill him.” —Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 84, hadith 57

The Ulema in Morocco knows that this norm goes against Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to change one’s own religion or belief. In order not to contradict this article, the Ulema says the prophet’s statement is understood to mean whoever abandons the umma should be put to death.

The term umma, the Ulema explained, is pertinent to the time of Mohammed and is to be understood within the context of two nations that are at war with each other, meaning the problem of apostasy is, therefore, a political one: to abandon Mohammed‘s company and pass into the enemy camp was a betrayal. Therefore, it was justifiable that whoever left his community and sided with its adversary should face death.

Yet today, the umma refers to the community of Muslims, and consequently, whoever abandons his confreres is to be punished. Since sharia is understood as the totality of Allah’s  commandments relating to the activities of man, logically those who abandon the Islamic community (umma) by converting to another religion or by becoming atheists are considered traitors and therefore lose their rights — or even their very lives.

While the pope touched on the issue of religious freedom in Morocco, echoing John Paul II words, he refrained from commenting on the fact that Morocco still maintains the death penalty for apostasy. Instead, the Bishop of Rome rehashed his condemnations against countries who wish to protect their borders against illegal immigration. In addition, during a visit to the Mohammed VI Institute for the training of “moderate” imams, he offered the following platitude: “It is likewise essential that fanaticism and extremism be countered by solidarity on the part of all believers.” It seems that this was just a deja-vu of visit to the UAE where, notwithstanding violations of human rights, all is fine at the OK Corral.

N.B. This article was originally published by the Clarion Project on March 31, 2019. Citations are found therein.