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Christian aid worker purge? Morocco orders dozens in five cities to be deported.

Morocco has ordered dozens of Christian aid workers in five major cities to be deported this week, with a Western official saying there may be another wave. The expulsions call into question an unspoken but longstanding truce.

By Erik GermanContributor / March 11, 2010

Rabat, Morocco

Moroccan authorities have ordered dozens of foreign Christian aid workers deported in at least five major cities this week, calling into question an unspoken but long-standing truce between missionaries and their Muslim hosts.

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“This is a change in policy from the top of the government,” says Jack Wald, who has spent 10 years as pastor of Rabat International Church, a protestant congregation here in the capital. “It’s like going to sleep, waking up, and all of the sudden you’re in a different country.”

The largest incident took place at an orphanage for 33 abandoned children in the Middle Atlas mountains on Monday. Moroccan police showed up in the village of Ain Leuh, located 50 miles south of the ancient city of Fez, and separated orphans from their adoptive parents before delivering a grim piece of news: the Moroccan authorities had accused the volunteers of spreading Christianity – a crime in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

Witnesses described an anguished scene as Dutch, British, Kiwi, and American volunteers hastily emptied households under stormy skies and hugged weeping Moroccan kids for the last time.

“The wind was howling... but that was nothing compared to the wailing of the children,” said one foreign witness, who asked not to be named, saying she feared reprisals from Moroccan authorities. “I’ve never heard a sound like that in my entire life.”

The deportation of aid workers from Morocco highlights both the major role that Christian aid organizations play in a number of Muslim nations and local anxieties that aid efforts are cover for covert proselytizing. On Wednesday, gunmen killed six Pakistani staffers for the Christian aid group World Vision working on a development project for survivors of a 2005 earthquake outside of Islamabad. World Vision spent $1 billion on aid projects around the world in 2009.

Government: It's not just Christians

Moroccan officials say they’re merely targeting isolated instances of law-breaking.

“This is not a move against Christians, it’s a move against people who don’t respect the law of this country,” said Morocco’s Communication Minister Khalid Naciri in a telephone interview.

But Christians see a sudden, coordinated campaign that has reversed an unwritten understanding.

In principle, Christian groups are allowed to do charitable work here so long as they don’t try converting Muslims, who make up 98 percent of the population. In practice, hundreds of foreign Christians have been quietly spreading their faith in Morocco for years, says Jean-Luc Blanc, head of the Casablanca-based Evangelical Church of Morocco.

In the past, Mr. Blanc said the government would typically deport one or two missionaries per year whom it judged to have crossed the line. But in his nine years here, Blanc says he hasn’t seen a mass expulsion like this. “Since I’ve been in Morocco, never,” he said.