As Reuters reports: "Morocco has expelled up to 70 Christian foreign aid workers since the start of this month, saying they were abusing its tradition of religious tolerance to try to convert local Muslims."
According to Compass Direct News, "A Moroccan pastor, his wife and a relative were arrested on Wednesday [March 10] and released on the next day, raising fears among local Christians that the wave of intolerance may spread to the country’s small but growing church of nearly 1,000 believers.
"An expert on religious freedom in the Middle East who requested anonymity said that attacks on the church are inevitable even in a Western-looking, modern country like Morocco, as the church grows and becomes more visible.
"'Because conversion is a taboo, if the government looks like it is doing nothing in regard to all the foreign missionaries that are coming and "corrupting" the country and its "national soul," it gives credit to Islamists who could challenge the "Islam-ness" of the Royal Family and the government, and that’s just what Morocco can't afford,' said the expert.
"The clampdown on foreign workers could signal government malaise toward the growing church. 'The more they grow, the more visible they become, the more they'll attract this reaction,' said the expert. 'And that's why they've been so quiet with house groups. It's just a matter of time.'"
Commenting on the deportations in relation to the closure of a Dutch-run orphanage, Morocco Board News Service writes: "It is puzzling what the Moroccan authorities are trying to achieve by this latest wave of deportations from the country. In addition to giving the country a bad image, it also negates a long cherished claim by Moroccan authorities that the country is a bastion of religious freedom."
See: Morocco: Orphanage shut down and Missionaries Expelled. 9 March 2010
Deportations by Morocco Causes Outcry in Holland. 10 March 2010
See also: Morocco clamps down on foreign Christians
Mission Network News. 10 March 2010
Morocco defends expulsion of Christian workers
BBC 12 March 2010
Morocco warns of tough line after missionaries expelled
AFP 13 March 2010
(This AFP article includes strong condemnations of "proselytism" from Morocco's Communications Minister Khalid Naciri , as well as leading Catholic and Jewish dhimmi voices.)
While the mass expulsion of foreign Christians does indicate a dramatic shift in policy, it should not come as a total surprise.
In September last year, the government moved against a new local civil liberties group known as the Alternative Movement for the Defense of Individual Liberties (MALI) when they attempted to stage an act of civil disobedience in protest of Article 222 of the Moroccan Penal Code which criminalises public eating during the fasting hours of Ramadan.
MALI's founder, Ms Zineb El-Rhazoui (a young female journalist and dual Moroccan-French citizen) has stated that MALI's objective is to defend 'all freedoms. Including freedom of worship'.
In September 2009, Zineb El-Rhazoui appealed through the group's Facebook site for supporters to join her on 13 September 2009 for a fast-breaking public picnic in the woods outside the town of Mohammedia.
However, when MALI supporters arrived at Mohammedia railway station they were met by a large contingent of some 100 police, who recorded the names and details of the religious dissidents.
Outraged Islamic clerics responded angrily, labelling MALI as "agitators" and demanding punishment. Subsequently MALI's leaders began receiving death threats.
(See: Mohammedia: An Abortive Attempt to a Public Breakfast in Ramadan. 16 Sept 2009
Public fast Breaking Protest during Ramadan in Morocco. 17 Sept 2009
Death Threats and Arrests for Facebook Ramadan Fast Break Protesters. 17 Sept 2009)
According to Human Rights Watch, MALI explained its objectives in a statement issued on 17 September 2009:
"MALI is not a group that is against Islam. We are for freedom of religion: In calling for the abrogation of a repressive article of the penal code (article 222), we also support Tunisian women who are attacked for wearing the headscarf. ... MALI is not an organization that seeks to provoke any community. Our goal is to draw attention to contradictions between international law, Morocco's constitution, and the country's laws, contradictions that are costly to Morocco's citizens and that undermine collective and individual freedoms."
The Moroccan Association of Human Rights is very concerned about Ms Zineb El-Rhazoui, who has been 'disappeared' since 17 September 2009.
Public fast breaking Protest leader Disappeared. 27 Sept 2009
The persecution of MALI indicates that the issue goes deeper than state anxiety over conversions and church growth. It is quite common to find governments seeking to contain Islamists, appeasing Islamists. It is like a barter system: if you do this for us, then we'll do that for you. In fact this system of costly containment is utilized widely from London to Riyadh, Amsterdam to Algiers, Brussels to Jakarta etc etc etc. So quite possibly, this is what is happening in Morocco.
ANALYSIS-Moroccan political elite moves to thwart Islamists
By Lamine Ghanmi
RABAT, 5 March 2010 (Reuters)
Morocco's Gentle War On Terror
By Tim McGirk / Wednesday, Aug. 06, 2008