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What changed?

Morocco | Morocco has been the model of a moderate Islamic nation. Now decades of good U.S.-Morocco relations face a setback over a continuing clamp-down on Christians

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," April 24, 2010

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.

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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.

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