WASHINGTON-For Malcolm Williams, nearly 21 years of living and working in Morocco came to an abrupt end with a notice delivered by Moroccan authorities that Williams remembers reading: "I, the Wali of Tangier, hereby order the deportation of Dr. Malcolm Williams, who is well known for his evangelistic activity, from the realm of Morocco."
Williams was stunned. The British citizen had lived in the North African nation for two decades, working as a professor of translation at the King Fahd School of Translation in the northern city Tangier. The former government employee says he is an active Christian but hasn't violated Moroccan laws that prohibit proselytizing. Still, his expulsion was swift: After interrogating Williams for five hours on the evening of March 6, authorities the next morning escorted him to a boat bound for Spain. Williams says they didn't allow him to return home, pack a bag, or say goodbye to his wife.
The professor is not alone. The same weekend, Moroccan authorities deported at least 18 other foreign Christians. Government officials expelled an estimated 40 foreigners during the month of March, accusing them of proselytizing. "They are guilty of trying to undermine the faith of Muslims," Interior Minister Tayeb Cherkaoui said in a press release.
The most high-profile case involved the deportations of foreign Christians working at the Village of Hope (VOH), an orphanage for Moroccan children in a rural village near Ain Leuh in northern Morocco. The orphanage cared for children in home settings, with some children living with families they considered their own for the last 10 years (see "Orphaned work," April 10). VOH says authorities deported all 16 overseas workers on March 8, including 10 house parents caring for the 33 children. The scene was wrenching.
In the weeks since, media reports and government officials have emphasized the VOH incident, saying the Christian workers tried to proselytize children (a charge VOH denies). But the dragnet involving Christians actually extends beyond those publicly acknowledged by the government: Other recent deportees-including Williams-had no formal connection with the orphanage and also vigorously deny accusations of proselytizing. They tell similar stories that represent a new level of obstacles for Christians, and perhaps other Westerners, working in Morocco: surprise interrogations, no hearings, and nearly instant deportations.
Shortly after arriving in Spain, Williams lamented his ordeal, but he worried about the broader implications, saying he believes the deportations "are not isolated incidents but clearly represent a systematic attempt to remove Christian workers from the country, and then in due course to scatter the emerging national Moroccan church."
Moroccan authorities deny a crackdown on Christians. From his office in the Moroccan embassy in Washington, D.C., Ambassador Aziz Mekouar says the March deportations snagged Christians guilty of proselytizing, though he acknowledges authorities didn't conduct hearings or trials. After a two-hour meeting with a group of nearly 10 Christian leaders at the Moroccan embassy on March 31, the ambassador insisted the country is open to Christians who obey the law, and he emphasized the historically good relations the United States has enjoyed with the progressive Muslim nation.
But for deported Christians-or for Christians who were out of the country in March and now can't get back into Morocco-the story appears bleaker: They worry that expulsions could signal a wider crackdown on Christians, many of whom perform humanitarian work in the country. Meanwhile, foreign Christians still in the country fear that the standards for proselytizing are changing. And both groups are concerned about others they say are under increasing pressure from authorities: indigenous, Moroccan Christians that comprise a slim minority in the predominantly Muslim nation.
Morocco in recent years has moved from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, giving more power to an elected legislature as it has grown more progressive. The country also has drawn extremist threats: Twelve suicide bombers struck Casablanca in 2003, killing 33 bystanders. Authorities linked those and attempted attacks in 2007 to Islamic extremists. Meanwhile, Moroccan officials have worked hard to cultivate good relations with Westerners, including U.S. evangelicals.
When Moroccan authorities arrived at VOH on March 6, Chris Broadbent wasn't alarmed.
The New Zealand native-now in Spain after his deportation-had worked as the human resources manager at the orphanage for two years, and he said government officials had granted VOH "institutional" status in January, giving the orphanage its seal of approval. Broadbent thought authorities were following up.
That wasn't the case. Police separated parents and children, and they asked the children questions about Islam. They asked workers about what they taught the children.
By 4:00 p.m. on Monday, authorities told the foreigners they would leave Morocco that night. Broadbent says an official statement in French informed them that they were guilty of proselytizing but didn't offer any evidence.
Broadbent says the organization has always openly acknowledged that house parents are active Christians, but he says children also grow up learning about Islam, and that parents don't try to coerce Moroccan children to convert.
The foreigners who raised Moroccan children hope they can be reunited, and they insist the group's practices weren't hidden from authorities. "We were always very open," says Broadbent. "So we're saying: What changed?"
Michael Ramsey has the same question. Ramsey is a Christian businessman who has lived in Morocco for 15 years. He has no connection to VOH and says he hasn't worked with children during his stay. But he has done humanitarian work: Ramsey says he and two colleagues-including a Muslim-conducted community development projects, like job creation and education. Though he's open about his Christian beliefs, Ramsey says he's never had any problems with authorities.
That changed on March 6, the same day authorities approached both Williams and VOH in separate locations. When Ramsey arrived at a local café to meet a friend, plain-clothes policemen met him at the door. The officers took Ramsey to the main police station, where they interrogated him for two hours. Ramsey says he demanded several times that authorities tell him why they were detaining him. They told him the questioning was routine.
By 7:30 p.m., the chief of police told a different story, says Ramsey: "He said, 'We're revoking your residency, and we're expelling you from the country tonight.'" A flabbergasted Ramsey asked why, and he says the chief replied: "You know why." When Ramsey insisted that he didn't, he says the officer told him he didn't know either. For the rest of the evening, Ramsey says the officers said they were following orders from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rabat, the capital city.
Ramsey pleaded to stay in the country for a couple of days to handle his affairs. The authorities refused, but they allowed him to return home to his wife and daughter for the night. Ramsey arrived home near midnight. "My brain was going a thousand miles and hour," he said. "You can imagine spending 15 years in a job and a country, and somebody giving you eight hours to get yourself ready."
Ramsey didn't learn of the other deportations until leaving the country the next morning. An official at his embassy told him authorities expelled him for proselytizing, a charge he denies. He says Moroccan authorities haven't informed him of any evidence against him and never offered him a hearing.
Ambassador Mekouar says authorities didn't give any of the deportees hearings because they wanted to spare them prosecution and punishment. Ramsey balks at that explanation: "If they are accusing me of proselytizing, give me my day in court and allow me to defend myself."
While Ramsey contemplates his life outside Morocco, Janet Smith wonders if she'll get back into the country. The Christian humanitarian worker, who has lived in Morocco for over a decade, was out of the country when deportations began. She says the U.S. Consulate has told her that her name is on a no-entry list for Morocco. Her husband managed to get back into the country but is now afraid to go home.
Smith says a group of policemen raided their home while they were away. She says they questioned Moroccans and deported an American, all staying in the house as guests. Now her husband fears authorities will deport him if he returns to the area. For now, Smith says he travels from hotel to hotel, seeking legal help and trying to learn more about his case.
Smith says the separation has been difficult, but she's also distressed at the thought of being banned from Morocco. She says the couple has a good relationship with their community, and coordinates projects like healthcare clinics on a regular basis. "These people are precious," she says of Moroccans, "and it breaks my heart to think that there's a possibility that I might never get to go back and see them again."
Williams, the professor, says he has many friends in Morocco after 20 years, but he doesn't expect to be able to return. His deportation followed a similar pattern as Ramsey's expulsion, beginning with an unexpected interrogation. Williams says the authorities mostly asked him about the relationships between Christian organizations in Morocco. He says they asked about his friends and wanted to know about his connections with Moroccan Christians. Like Ramsey, Williams says authorities told him they were waiting on orders from Rabat. They deported him the next morning.
Williams considers his work in Morocco over, but he worries that authorities may impede other Christians from the humanitarian work that has helped the country: "They want the fruit, but they absolutely don't want the root."
Back in Washington, Ambassador Mekouar says Morocco welcomes both. He insists all the deportees were guilty of proselytizing, though he said he didn't immediately have details about cases outside VOH. He says proselytizing involves pushing someone to change their faith, but says conversations about religion are permissible.
When asked why the cluster of deportations happened at the same time and in different cities, he attributed them to ongoing investigations. He dismisses notions that the authorities used deportations to send a political message to extremists who resent the country for tolerating Christians, though he does acknowledge that such threats and tensions exist.
For Christians remaining in Morocco, tensions remain high. Foreign Christians say they wonder if standards regarding proselytizing have changed. Most have interpreted anti-proselytizing laws as prohibiting attempts to pressure, coerce, or bribe someone to convert. Friendly conversations about Christianity have been permissible. Now some aren't sure. "At what point does living your life become proselytizing?" asks Jack Wald, pastor of Rabat International Church in Morocco. "We've always lived our lives openly. . . . Now everyone is unsure of what is permitted."
Wald, Williams, and Ramsey all say they have another concern: Moroccan Christians. All three report that sources inside the country have told them that authorities are questioning and intimidating local Christians. Ramsey says some Moroccans have told him that authorities are following some Christians and watching their homes. Wald has heard similar reports. "The first wave was this deportation of foreign Christians," says Wald. "Now the heat is on Moroccan Christians-it's pretty intense."
Wald also remains concerned for the intense environment for the children living at VOH apart from the adults who raised them. Every Sunday, his church bulletin includes a count of the days that the families have been apart. Easter Sunday marked Day 27, he said: "We don't want to forget."
-ED. NOTE: Michael Ramsey and Janet Smith are pseudonyms to protect their identities and their contacts in Morocco