Children's Haven of Morocco began when a Moroccan woman pled with two American expatriates-Irene Wenholz and Mary Mellinger-to take her baby. They were not in Morocco to start an orphanage so they refused, but they couldn't forget that baby.
The next time a Moroccan woman thrust her baby at them with a plea, they took the baby in. Fifty-seven years later, the children who grew up under the women's care describe Moroccans lining up each afternoon to get medicine and medical help from the orphanage workers. When a staff member was gravely injured in a car accident, the governor of the region canceled his reelection party out of concern. When recent floods nearly wiped the village of Azrou away, the orphanage gave medicine and aid.
So when the Muslim neighbors of Children's Haven heard that it was under investigation for proselytizing, the neighbors flocked to the mosques to pray for the aid workers' safety. Salim Sefaine, who grew up in the Children's Haven and now lives in the United States, said his foster parents are not outsiders who come in and out of the country to make converts, but community pillars. His foster father, Jim Pitts, has lived in Morocco longer than he has lived in the United States.
The Moroccan government is suddenly bearing down on Christian organizations like Children's Haven, saying it is responding to complaints that the organizations are using good deeds to proselytize illegally. In March the government expelled up to 70 Christian foreign aid workers, deporting some while barring others from returning to the country.
Moroccan officials came to Children's Haven and asked for all of the workers' information, the names of the children, and how they came to the Haven. They searched their bookshelves for Christian literature and listed all their possessions. Children's Haven seems to have passed the investigation and workers are so far allowed to stay in the country; but they look at the outcome for other workers and know that may change within hours. On March 8, the government gave staffers at another orphanage, Village of Hope (VOH), just seven hours to pack their bags and say goodbye to the 33 children they had cared for as their own. In a statement pleading for their return, VOH workers say that officials gave "no explanation of who, when, where or how" the alleged proselytizing occurred.
VOH says this action is "part of a nationwide crackdown against Christians living in Morocco." They seem to be right. Christian expatriates say it is like going to sleep in one Morocco-one known for being more tolerant among the Muslim states-and waking up in one where acts of compassion are now somehow suspect. Bob Blincoe, U.S. director of the missions organization Frontiers, said this is a departure from previous policy: "We did not expect this."
Morocco's proselytism law states that those who impede worship by violence or threats may face a fine and imprisonment-and not just those who use violence but who use "seduction . . . for the purpose of shaking the faith of a Muslim or to convert him to another religion."
This seduction can mean exploiting someone's "weakness or his needs" or using institutions that provide education, health and shelter, or care for orphans. Both Children's Haven and Village of Hope have done work since the 1950s that apparently only now fits this definition of religious seduction.
Jack Wald, pastor of Rabat International Church in Morocco, asks, "At what point does living your life become proselytism? If you're caring for children at the Village of Hope and people see your faith as you care for your children and become interested and care about the Christian faith, is that proselytism? Apparently the government is saying, yes it is."
There is no clear answer as to who is pushing against Christians and why, although some under investigation have reported that orders seem to be coming from the new Minister of Justice Mohammed Naciri, and Minister of Interior Chakib Benmoussa.
One possibility is that Morocco's declining parties are trying to regain power by drawing Islamist support. In municipal elections last June, the party for modernism won the most votes, forcing the two top parties into decline. The Istiqlal Party, a conservative monarchistic party, and the Socialist Party may be targeting Christians to draw in Islamists and bulk up their numbers. The Islamist party won only 5 percent of the vote in the last election, so it may welcome a boon from two stronger parties.
Another possibility is that the government fears the Islamist threat to the monarchy and is targeting Christians to pacify Islamists and their growth. International media have emphasized the number of Islamic conversions to Christianity and growth of the Christian church, feeding Islamist fears and prompting Muslim Brotherhood leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi to speak against conversions in nations like neighboring Algeria. According to the state-run news agency Maghreb Arab Presse, Moroccan government spokesperson Khalid Naciri said that the government acted to meet the expectation of public opinion and deported the workers to defuse "mounting tension."
In the midst of these deportations, other groups are making statements that the government is using against the deported Christians. On March 18, the Non-Aligned Movement praised Morocco's promotion of "interreligious dialogue, the culture of peace and the harmonious coexistence between faiths and cultures." In a joint statement, the Archbishop of Rabat Vincent Landel and Jean Luc Blanc, president of the Evangelical Church in Morocco, distanced themselves from the targeted groups, reiterating that they were against proselytizing and saying their purpose was to help fellow Christians meet and respect Muslims. The government has used these statements against those decrying the deportations, saying the "official Churches" praise Morocco as a tolerant country.
It is not the first time religious extremists have used interfaith movements to promote intolerance, said Marshall Sana, communications director for the Barnabas Fund, an organization that gives aid to persecuted Christians. In Jordan, persecution of Christians coincided with Common Word Initiatives supposedly promoting interfaith understanding. Sana said Islamist activists can use interfaith initiatives to exclude and label as troublemakers more evangelical organizations that maintain the exclusive claims of the Bible.
Sefaine remembers that police stopped Mary Mellinger on the way to the airport years ago, suspicious that an American woman had so many Moroccan children in her car. This time suspicion had a different outcome, though. When the lieutenant, who grew up in the Children's Haven community, saw Mellinger, he swept the 4-foot-11-inch woman into a hug and thanked her with tears in his eyes. Sefaine said, "This is my home. If this place is taken away, my heart has become an orphan again."