Morocco’s hidden Christians see Pope trip as chance to push for freedom

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis is seen during the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square, at the Vatican February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Yara Nardi/File Photo

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Moroccan converts to Christianity, a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, are looking to Pope Francis’ visit next week as an chance to press their demands for religious freedom.

Francis will spend two days in Rabat on his first trip to the North African country from March 30-31 – the first visit there by any pope in nearly 35 years.

He will spend time with Roman Catholics – most of them expatriate Europeans, mainly French, and sub-Saharan African migrants – who are free to worship in churches such as the capital’s art deco St. Peter’s Cathedral.

But unlike those “foreign Christians”, Moroccan converts say they are forced to worship at home, in secret. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is banned – as it is in many Muslim countries – and proselytizing is punishable by up to three years in prison.

One group backing them – the Moroccan Association for Religious Rights and Freedoms – has already written to the Vatican, raising its concerns, and it is planning a sit-in outside a church in Rabat on the eve of the visit.

“We want laws that protect religious minorities in the country on an equal footing,” the head of the association, Jawad El Hamidy, said.

“We will seize the pope’s visit to put more pressure on the state to protect religious freedoms.”

“NO DISCRIMINATION”

Morocco has marketed itself as an oasis of religious tolerance in a region torn by militancy – and has offered training to Muslim preachers from Africa and Europe on what it describes as moderate Islam.

Government spokesman Mustapha El Khalfi said the authorities did not violate religious freedoms. “There is no persecution in Morocco and there is no discrimination on the basis of faith,” he told reporters when asked about the accusations.

But converts point to the constitution, which formally recognizes the existence of Moroccan Muslims and Jews – but not of Moroccan Christians. They also point to their day-to-day experience.

“When I went to a church to declare my faith, I was told that I was prohibited to do so by Moroccan law,” said a 40-year-old Moroccan Christian who gave his name as Emmanuel and asked not be shown while filmed.

“We call on Moroccan authorities and the Holy Father to seize the opportunity offered by this papal visit to launch a sincere dialogue on religious freedom for Moroccan citizens,” the Coordination of Moroccan Christians, a local lobby group, said.

There are no official statistics, but leaders say there are about 50,000 Moroccan Christians, most of them from the Protestant Evangelical tradition – outnumbering the estimated 30,000 Roman Catholics in the country.

There was no immediate response from the Vatican to the Association’s letter. But the most senior Roman Catholic in Morocco – the Archbishop of Rabat, Cristobal Lopez Romero – offered his support.

“We as Catholic Christians appreciate that we fully enjoy the freedom of faith but we will be happier if the Moroccan people could also enjoy that,” the Spanish cleric told reporters.

“I would love to be able to become Moroccan without having to change my religion.”

(Editing by Ulf Laessing, Philip Pullella and Andrew Heavens)

Jews and Muslims celebrate unusual coexistence in Tunisia’s Djerba

Two Tunisian Muslim women chat with a Jewish man at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

By Tarek Amara and Ahmed Jadallah

DJERBA, Tunisia (Reuters) – Cyrine Ben Said, a Tunisian Muslim, carried candles and wrote her hopes for the future on an egg in religious ceremony at a synagogue on the southern island of Djerba.

She wanted to share the rituals with her Jewish friends because, for her, Tunisia is a country of tolerance, coexistence and freedom of belief.

“I’m here to share rituals with my Jewish friends in new Tunisia of tolerance, coexistence and freedom of belief … Every one has his religion, but we have many common points; the flag, love and peace,” Ben Said.

Tunisia is home to one of North Africa’s largest Jewish communities. Jews have lived in Tunisia since Roman times, and the community once numbered 100,000.

But fear, poverty and discrimination prompted several waves of emigration after the creation of Israel in 1948. Many left after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, most going to France or Israel.

They now number about 2,000, with more than 1,200 in Djerba.

Ben Said is one of dozens of Muslims who participated in the Jewish religious ceremonies in the oldest synagogue in Africa, Ghriba, during an annual celebration held this month. The eggs, covered in people’s ambitions for love and prosperity, are stored in a cellar.

The event is a powerful sign of mutual tolerance in Djerba, where the two communities have long coexisted.

“The Jews and the Muslims of Djerba are all Tunisian citizens, so there is no difference between us,” said Perez Trabelsi, a Jewish community leader. He added that despite their small number Jewish people have a strong presence in economic life, including tourism, restaurants and the jewelry trade.

“NO DIFFERENCE”

Each year, Muslim religious leaders and politicians from the Mufti to the head of the government take the chance to go to Ghriba to promote the message of interreligious tolerance.

“This is a peaceful island that embraces its Jews and Muslims in harmony, giving a message to the world that we must abandon hatred and hostility,” said Tunisian Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, as he shook hands with one of the rabbis.

Cyrine Ben Said (L) and Amnia Ben Khalif, Muslim Tunisians, light candles during a religious ceremony at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Cyrine Ben Said (L) and Amnia Ben Khalif, Muslim Tunisians, light candles during a religious ceremony at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Ghriba synagogue was hit by an al Qaeda truck bombing in 2002 that killed 21 people, most of them German visitors.

At the entrance to the synagogue, a young Muslim, Makrem Gaagaa, welcomes visitors with a broad smile and presents headscarves to those who need one.

“It’s my job and my livelihood,” he said. “My relationship with everyone who visits this place is good, they have their religion and I have my religion,” added the guard, who has worked in the synagogue since seven years.

Most Jews in Djerba live in Hara Kbira neighborhood, their homes next to Muslim homes, where they exchange visits and gifts at religious events and weddings.

“Here, there is no difference between Jews and a Muslims,” says Jewish resident Georgina, who gave only her first name. “We are good neighbors, some of them we visit all the time. They offer us food, and we give them food, too.”

Despite the peaceful atmosphere, security is still tight. This year, during protests against government austerity measures in January, assailants threw petrol bombs at a small synagogue in Djerba, causing shock but no casualties.

In Djerba’s old medina, Jewish tailor Mgissis Chabeh has worked for four decades sewing “jebba”, a traditional Muslim dress.

Tunisian Jews and Muslims attend a ceremony at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Tunisian Jews and Muslims attend a ceremony at Ghriba, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Africa, during an annual pilgrimage in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. Picture taken May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

“All my customers are Muslims and they love my work,” 70-year-old Chabeh said from behind his sewing machine, in between jokes with a Muslim gold trader friend.

The old medina in Djerba is full of jewelry shops, most of which are run by Jews who have controlled the trade in Djerba for decades.

Nearby, a popular Jewish restaurant has a sign written in Arabic and Hebrew.

“In the old city there are many Jews,” said Jewish chef Gabriel Yahich. “We cook meals for them that are compatible with the Jewish religion, but we also offer traditional meals accepted by the Muslims.”

“For me the important thing is that trade is good, the rest is details.”

(Editing by Aidan Lewis and Alison Williams)

Boat migrant rescues surge as calm seas return to Mediterranean

Rescue worker greeting migrant child on the boat

By Darrin Zamit Lupi

ABOARD THE TOPAZ RESPONDER (Reuters) – Ships manned by humanitarian organizations, the Italian navy and coast guard helped rescue about 4,500 boat migrants on Thursday as calm seas returned to the Mediterranean, prompting a surge in departures from North Africa.

Rescue operations were continuing, an Italian coast guard spokesman said. The corpse of a woman was taken from a large rubber boat, and the migrants were collected from a total of about 40 different vessels, he said.

The Topaz Responder, a ship run by the Malta-based humanitarian group Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), said earlier in the day that around two dozen migrant boats had been spotted in the sea about 20 nautical miles from the Libyan port city of Sabratha.

Libya’s navy intercepted about 1,000 migrants on board eight rubber boats off Sabratha on Thursday morning, spokesman Ayoub Qassem said. He said the migrants were from Arab as well as sub-Saharan African countries.

“The mass movement is probably the result of week-long, unfavorable weather conditions” that have come to an end, MOAS said on Twitter.

The Topaz Responder picked up 382 sub-Saharan African migrants from three different large rubber boats. The Bourbon Argos, a ship run by humanitarian group Doctors without Borders, plucked 1,139 migrants from 10 boats, and two other humanitarian vessels picked up 156 more.

The Italian navy said it had rescued 515 from two dinghies, German humanitarian group Sea-Watch said it had 100 on board, and the Italian coast guard, which coordinates rescue operations, said it had deployed several boats.

An agreement between Turkey and the EU to stop migrant departures for the Greek islands has reduced boat arrivals by 98 percent during the first five months of the year from the same period of 2015, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.

But arrivals in Italy continue at about the same clip as last year, and the deadly central Mediterranean route has already claimed 2,438 lives, IOM said.

Italy has been on the front line of Europe’s worst immigration crisis since World War Two and now in its third year. More than 320,000 boat migrants came to Italy from North Africa in 2014-15.

As of Wednesday, 56,328 boat migrants had been brought to Italy in 2016, a 5.5 percent decrease on the same period of last year, according to the Interior Ministry.

Nigerians, Eritreans and Gambians were the top three migrant nationalities this year, the ministry said, and more than 125,000 are now living in Italian shelters.

(Reporting by Darrin Zammit Lupi on the Topaz Responder migrant rescue ship, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, and Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli; Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Cynthia Osterman)

Italy rescues nearly 1,800 migrants in last 24 hours

A child is helped during a rescue operation by Italian navy ship Grecale off the coast of Sicily

ROME (Reuters) – Italian vessels have helped rescue nearly 1,800 migrants from boats trying to reach Italy from north Africa in the last 24 hours, the navy said on Friday, indicating that numbers are rising as the weather warms up.

The navy said 1,759 migrants were rescued in 10 operations involving the Italian navy, coastguard and finance police, the European Union’s external borders agency Frontex and the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres.

The Italian frigate Grecale was taking the migrants to the Sicilian port of Augusta, where they were expected to arrive on Saturday morning, a navy statement said. It gave no details of their nationalities.

The latest arrivals picked up in the Strait of Sicily will bring the total of migrants reaching Italy by boat so far this year to more than 30,000, slightly higher than in the same period of 2015.

Humanitarian organizations say the sea route between Libya and Italy is now the main route for asylum seekers heading for Europe, after an EU deal with Turkey dramatically slowed the flow of people reaching Greece.

Officials fear the numbers trying to make the crossing to southern Italy will increase as sailing conditions improve in warmer weather.

More than 1.2 million Arab, African and Asian migrants fleeing war and poverty have streamed into the European Union since the start of last year.

Most of those trying to reach Italy leave the coast of lawless Libya on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies, heading for the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is close to Tunisia, or toward Sicily.

On Wednesday, however, Italy’s coastguard said it had rescued 42 migrants from a sailboat off the coast of Puglia, in the southeastern heel of mainland Italy.

(Reporting by Gavin Jones; editing by Andrew Roche)

Germany seeks to limit migration from North Africa, faces integration challenges

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany wants to limit migration from North Africa by declaring Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia ‘safe countries’, officials from the ruling coalition said on Monday, cutting their citizens’ chance of being granted asylum to virtually zero.

The initiative follows outrage over sexual attacks on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve blamed predominantly on North African migrants that sharpened a national debate about the open-door refugee policy adopted by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Europe’s most populous country and largest economy has borne the brunt of the continent’s biggest refugee influx since World War Two. Some 1.1 million asylum seekers arrived in the country in 2015, most fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Merkel’s conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), agreed on Monday that Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – troubled by unrest rather than full-blown conflict – should be designated safe countries.

The step is intended to reduce the number of arrivals from these countries and make deportations easier, CDU general Peter Tauber said after a meeting of senior party members.

Earlier on Monday, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Berlin wanted to discuss with other European Union states designating Morocco and Algeria as safe countries.

On Sunday, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said Berlin could cut development aid to countries that are not willing to take back citizens whose asylum applications were rejected.

Asked about Germany’s policy towards Algeria and Morocco, Gabriel told ARD television: “There cannot be a situation where you take the development aid but do not accept your own citizens when they can’t get asylum here because they have no reason to flee their country.”

INTEGRATION

To help integrate refugees and defuse social tensions that have escalated since the Cologne attacks, Gabriel called on Monday for an extra $5.45 billion a year in public spending on police, education and daycare.

“We can only manage the double task of integration, namely accommodating the new arrivals and also preserving the cohesion of our society, if we have a strong state capable of acting,” he said after a meeting of his senior Social Democrats (SPD), the coalition partner in Merkel’s government.

He said Germany needed 9,000 more police, 25,000 new teachers and 15,000 daycare workers, while funds for public housing should be doubled.

His proposal is expected to be approved at federal and state level in coming months.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble wants to avoid the government taking on new debt in 2016, but he has admitted this may be difficult due to the ballooning refugee costs.

Part of those costs will be covered with the surplus from last year’s budget, which was a bigger-than-expected 12.1 billion euros.

(Additional reporting by Holger Hansen and Andreas Rinke; Editing by Mark Heinrich and John Stonestreet)