Pope rounds off Morocco visit with mass for thousands

Sophie Pons, Catherine Marciano and Hamza Mekouar, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Apr 01 2019 06:41 AM | Updated as of Apr 01 2019 06:42 AM

Pope Francis holds a mass at Prince Moulay Abdellah sports complex in Rabat, Morocco, March 31, 2019. Vatican Media/Handout via Reuters

RABAT, Morocco -- Pope Francis called Sunday for tolerance and peace at a mass for thousands of Catholics during a rare visit by a pontiff to Morocco, after warning the faithful there against trying to convert others. 

Ten thousand worshipers, many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, packed a sports complex in Rabat as the pope rounded off his 2-day stay in the Muslim North African state. 

"Often we are tempted to believe that hatred and revenge are legitimate ways of ensuring quick and effective justice," the 82-year-old pontiff told those gathered. 

"Yet experience tells us that hatred, division and revenge succeed only in killing our peoples' soul, poisoning our children's hopes, and destroying and sweeping away everything we cherish."

Ahead of the mass the pope insisted to an audience of around 400 at Rabat's cathedral that trying to convert people to one's own belief "always leads to an impasse".

"Please, no proselytism!" he said.


Christians are a tiny minority in Morocco where 99 percent of the population is Muslim, with sub-Saharan Africans making up a large part of the country's 30,000-strong Catholic community.

Islam is the state religion and authorities are keen to stress the country's "religious tolerance" which allows Christians and Jews to worship freely.

But Moroccans are automatically considered Muslim if they are not born into the Jewish community, apostasy is socially frowned upon, and proselytizing is criminalized.

"I protect Moroccan Jews as well as Christians from other countries, who are living in Morocco," King Mohammed VI told crowds on Saturday, following the pontiff's arrival.

There are a few thousand Christian converts in Morocco, who since 2017 have called openly for the right to live "without persecution" and "without discrimination".

Francis is the first pontiff to visit the North African country since John Paul II in 1985 and the cathedral had been repainted for the occasion.

Waiting for the pope outside, a Nigerian man said the visit "shows that living together is possible in Morocco".

But "there are things to improve, notably the question of migrants and that of Moroccan Christians", said 36-year-old Antoine, who works for an association to defend migrant rights.

The need to support migrants was mentioned again Sunday by Francis, who has made the issue a focal point of his papacy.

On Saturday he visited migrants at a Caritas charity center, where the pope criticized "collective expulsions" and said ways for migrants to regularize their status should be encouraged.

Morocco says it has a "humanistic" approach to migration and rejects allegations by rights groups of "brutal arrest campaigns" and "forced displacement" to the country's southern border.


Earlier on Sunday, Francis visited a social center run by nuns and volunteers near Rabat, including a health center where he met with unwell children.

The previous day he visited an institute which hosts around 1,300 trainee imams and preachers.

There they heard from a French and a Nigerian student of the institute, which teaches "moderate Islam" and is backed by the king.

The Moroccan monarch also welcomed Francis to the royal palace, where the two addressed the "sacred character of Jerusalem" in a joint declaration.

The city should be a "symbol of peaceful coexistence" for Christians, Jews and Muslims, they said in a statement released by the Vatican.

"The specific multi-religious character, the spiritual dimension and the particular cultural identity of Jerusalem... must be protected and promoted," said the text, which was jointly signed at Rabat's royal palace.

The Moroccan king chairs a committee created by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to safeguard and restore Jerusalem's religious, cultural and architectural heritage.

Jerusalem's status is perhaps the most sensitive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel sees the entire city as its capital, while the Palestinians want the eastern sector as the capital of their future state.

US President Donald Trump sparked anger across the Muslim world when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital in 2017.

Returning to Rome later Sunday, Francis told reporters on board the papal plane the "presumption of innocence" must prevail in relation to the appeal by French cardinal Philippe Barbarin who was handed a six-month suspended jail sentence earlier this month for failing to report sex abuse by a priest under his authority.

"When the second court delivers a sentence we will see what happens," the pope said warning against a "superficial media condemnation".

"Perhaps he is not innocent, but it must be presumed that he is," he added.