Evangelical Christianity in Morocco
Articles and pictures in this month’s Missionary Spotlight (pages 14 & 19) are provided by Arab World Ministries (AWM) which commemorates 2006 as its 125th anniversary. It ministers to Arab peoples in North Africa, as well as to immigrants in North America and Europe. Morocco is one of 19 Arab countries in which AWM works today. Further details on www.awm.org
Several waves of foreign peoples colonised Morocco in thecenturies before and after Christ, including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Vandals — who overran Roman Europe and then continued their passage of destruction into North Africa. These peoples were successively absorbed into the indigenous Berbers.
The gospel reached North Africa in the first centuries AD and took root among some of the Berber tribes. But a century of constant attrition at the hands of the vandals left the church severely weakened, and when the Islamic armies arrived they were able to impose their religion relatively easily.
Morocco today is an Islamic country. The only recognised minority are Moroccan Jews who were once quite numerous, but most of them have emigrated in the last 60 years. The few Moroccan Christians are not legally recognised.
Even so, the Christian faith has a long history in Morocco. It survived for several centuries under Islam and in the new Islamic capital city of Fez there was a church and a gate named after it.
It was finally exterminated, and for nine centuries there were only sporadic attempts to bring Christianity back, even though Morocco was only two or three days sail away from London, and three hours from Gibraltar.
A few evangelical missionaries finally arrived at the end of the nineteenth century. A small number of Moroccans accepted Christ, but most missionaries laboured for decades without seeing much lasting fruit. The number of Moroccan Christians has continued to be small up to the present day.
How many Christians are there? Recent newspaper reports in Morocco have tried to estimate their number. As the stories circulated around the newspapers, the size of the Christian population ‘grew’ at an exceptional rate, reaching 57,000 in a matter of months. If only it were true! An estimate of 1000 active Christians would probably be much more accurate.
The number of other believers who aren’t in contact with any other Christians is impossible to guess. A few may have been alerted to their need of the gospel by dreams and visions. Some may have become Christians thanks to radio and satellite TV broadcasting in Arabic and Berber, or through literature distribution outside and inside the country, or in other ways.
Often such isolated believers think they are the only Moroccans to become Christians and are afraid to tell anyone else about their faith. Like a tree stunted and struggling to survive in a hostile climate, the church has not been allowed to grow and establish itself.
Opposition from Islam has come in three forms and it is hard to judge which is the worst. Firstly, the government, which until recently was a feared dictatorship running a police state, persecuted the few Christians from the 1960s to the late 1990s.
Prison, torture and threats created a climate of fear that still exists among the older generation of believers. The new king, Mohammed VI, has brought about considerable changes and direct persecution has eased.
No laws have changed, but it seems to be accepted (according to recent newspaper reports) that a Moroccan can now choose to become a Christian. Nevertheless, police harassment and questioning continues.
Secondly, newspapers reveal that opposition from society is still strong. Islamic groups are trying to gain support, or put pressure on the government, by exaggerating the number of Christians and missionaries in the country and portraying this as a threat. Christians risk becoming victims in political power struggles.
The third source of opposition comes from families. Family honour remains very important. Pressure from, and fear of, the family are the greatest sources of anxiety for many younger believers. As a result, many try to keep their faith secret.
This often limits their growth as Christians, both in terms of faith in God’s power to help and sustain them and because they are too afraid to keep a Bible in the home or read it.
Of those who confess Christ in their home or are discovered to be Christians, nearly all are thrown out of their families. But God is faithful to these believers and reconciliation is often possible after a time. Other members of the family sometimes come to faith when they see their firm witness.
These pressures produce a number of other practical problems, such as finding places where groups can meet without being noticed or heard in the crowded neighbourhoods.
It has been hard for believers to take that risk or even sometimes to trust one another. After their first brush with persecution, many have tried to keep their heads down and their faith to themselves.
Missionary work is not allowed, but foreigners are able to work and worship relatively freely. Living in a Muslim society presents many opportunities for expatriates to share their faith with people who have been indoctrinated against Christianity but never heard the good news itself.
In the past, radio programmes and Bible correspondence courses were effective in reaching those who could never meet a Christian in person. Christian satellite TV channels are quite widely watched now, but correspondence by post has fallen as access to the internet has grown. Cyber cafes are everywhere and young people now have access to Christian web sites. Unfortunately this also exposes them to many bad influences as well.
The church meets secretly in small groups, but the last decade has seen it reaching a new level of maturity. Some gifted and active leaders have been able to take on roles that had previously fallen to missionaries.
National groups have even sent out their own church planters to cities where there are no established fellowships. The momentum that could never be achieved in the past is now being slowly gained.
Moroccan believers express their desire not to fragment into (imported) church denominations — they would prefer one evangelical Moroccan church for the whole country. But this is easier said than done!
There are tensions between Christian groups, and many outside missionary agencies and churches have their own agendas. Much wisdom will be needed by those in leadership to bring the church as a whole together on a scriptural basis and follow God’s much bigger agenda for the nation.
May the many obstacles facing Christians in Morocco not obscure our vision of what the Lord can do through the glorious gospel of Christ!