Rabat (AFP) – Pope Francis has called 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 worshippers, many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, packed a sports complex in Rabat on Sunday as the pope rounded off his two-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.
– Visit with migrants –
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 proselytising is criminalised.
“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 centre, where the pope criticised “collective expulsions” and said ways for migrants to regularise 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.
– Jerusalem declaration –
Earlier on Sunday, Francis visited a social centre run by nuns and volunteers near Rabat, including a health centre where he met with unwell children.
The Moroccan king 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 one of the most sensitive issues 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.
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.
In another interview the pope said a process of “healing” had started within the Church in the wake of a paedophilia summit in February, but acknowledged guilty priests had not been punished.
He told Spanish TV station La Sexta he understood that many were disappointed at the lack of concrete results of the landmark Vatican summit, but insisted progress was being made.