Morocco has long been the leader amongst nations in the Middle East when it comes to religious tolerance—and for good reason. The presence of Christians and Jews dates back several centuries, even though their numbers have fluctuated over time. The 1492 expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain led to an influx of followers of these faiths into Morocco, while the legacy of colonialism contributed a sizable number of Christians as well. As it stands today, there are an estimated 25,000 Christian expatriates concentrated in Rabat and Casablanca, and some 6,000 Jewish Moroccan nationals throughout the country. While these numbers pale in comparison to the multitudes of (largely Sunni) muslims, the fact is that, for the most part, each of these communities has lived in peaceful coexistence with the others for quite some time.
Islam is, of course, the official state religion. However, the constitution provides the legal framework for religious tolerance; it is clearly stated in Article 220 of the Penal Code that attempts to stop the practice of religion or the attendance of services is punishable by 3 to 6 months in prison and a 115 to 575 Dirham fine ($10 to $50). While not the harshest of conceivable penalties, this law formalizes religious tolerance. In addition, the government monitors the activities of Islamic groups and of mosques to ensure that they do not overstep their bounds and promote politically or religiously volatile activities. In practice, what this all means is that open worship is tolerated, but proselytizing is restricted, if not outright forbidden. The government does provide such things as tax benefits, land and building grants, and subsidies to facilitate and encourage the practice of the three major religions. The state officially sponsors the study of Islam in public schools, as well as Jewish studies in Jewish schools. All three faiths also have private educational institutions that function largely without impediments.
Successive kings have made additional efforts to display support for Christianity and Judaism through their actions; important religious figures from each faith have on numerous occasions been invited to the royal palace. The government has also sponsored interfaith events, such as the “Fez Festival of Sacred Music,” as well as panels on interfaith relations, in the hopes of encouraging tolerance and edification. An event was held at the Catholic Cathedral in Rabat to remember the victims of the Atocha bombings, with widespread attendance by government officials and people of the three major faiths. Also interesting to note is the fact that Morocco is the only country with a museum of Jewish history. The museum was opened in 1997 in Casablanca and displays traditionally Jewish-Moroccan ethnographic items.
With regards to restrictions on religious practice, they are generally few and far between. Proselytizing is perhaps the most widely regulated practice; there have been incidents of Christian missionaries being expelled from the country, on the grounds that their behavior is dangerous and detrimental to the social fabric of the nation. There is a somewhat blurry line in such cases between tolerance and fear of greater social instability. Increasingly, though, those who choose to convert from Islam to other religions have come to be tolerated, though they often face a significant social stigma. Additionally, while Bibles can be sold, they must not be in Arabic, which seems to be a curious requirement. One other point of interest is the fact that the Shiite organization Al Ghadir has had the least success of all religious organizations in obtaining official recognition. This can probably be attributed to Morocco being a heavily Sunni nation.
Thus, what can be seen is a picture of a nation that has long been far ahead of its neighbors in the realm of religious tolerance, which is quite astounding for such a religiously-charged and conflict-prone region. It serves as model for its neighbors, and it is of little surprise that Moroccans feel so proud about being so far ahead of the curve.
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