Christians expelled, Morocco and US spar over religious freedom

A congressional committee is holding a hearing today on religious freedom in Morocco, which expelled nearly 100 Christian foreigners in March. Morocco is investigating an American school that parents have accused of spreading Christianity.

By , Correspondent

Months after Morocco deported nearly 100 Christian foreigners, the US Congress and Morocco are sparring over religious freedom, with both countries opening investigations that could strain relations between the two allies.

On Thursday, a congressional human rights commission is scheduled to hold a hearing on the status of religious freedom in Morocco, which receives nearly $700 million of American aid through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

Rep. Tom Wolf (R) of Virginia, co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, urged suspension of MCC funding “to a nation which blatantly disregards the rights of American citizens residing in Morocco and forcibly expels American citizens without due process of law" in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

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That's unlikely to happen, since the US closely cooperates in military and antiterrorist programs with Morocco and has a long-standing free trade agreement with the country.

But some Moroccans, too, are upset with the US.

Moroccans are asking if American missionaries were secretly – and illegally – spreading Christianity among the poor. Some charge that an American school advertised as secular was inculcating Christian beliefs in students. That has angered many Muslims here and fueled a debate on how religion should be taught in a globalizing world. The case is currently under investigation by Moroccan police.

School officials barred from returning to Morocco

Parents and former teachers charge that the George Washington Academy (GWA), a stately private school just outside of Casablanca, lured students with a facade of multicultural academic excellence, only to spread Christianity.

The school first came under scrutiny in late March, when border officials barred GWA founder and director Jack Rusenko and two senior school administrators from reentering Morocco, in part of an unusual sweep of foreigners said to be missionaries. Moroccan law explicitly forbids proselytizing.

Although GWA denies wrongdoing, it is gaining notoriety, spurred by a website that spreads word of new tales of complaints by teachers and parents. Mustapha Ramid, a prominent Islamist politician whose complaint spurred the police investigation, is calling on judicial authorities to investigate the matter as well.

“It is out of the question to misuse a school to convert children – that’s true for any school in this country,” says Mr. Ramid, a member of parliament, in an interview in his Casablanca office. “Foreigners must respect our laws,” Ramid adds.

Ramid’s words resonate with many here, who feel deeply offended at the thought that foreign evangelists would spread their religion in secret, particularly among children.

“While Moroccans are proud of being Muslim, this does not prevent us from being tolerant and respectful of others. But others must not consider this openness as a weakness,” wrote one father on the website.

Meanwhile, Deborah MacArthur, who stepped in for Jack Rusenko as head of the school’s board of directors, faults “hysterical propaganda” for the controversy. MacArthur says the school, whose student population is 60 percent Moroccan, 20 percent American, and 20 percent from other countries, has served as a “crown jewel” of Moroccan-American friendship since its founding 13 years ago.

Board members still hope to open new branches of GWA in the northern skiing village of Ifrane and the ocher city of Marrakech to the south.

According to Ms. MacArthur, teachers expose students to historical and philosophical aspects of the major monotheistic religions to encourage tolerance and groom children to succeed in a multicultural world.

“We try to prepare children for the global village. Personal faith belongs in the home,” she said at a press conference held in April to staunch the flow of rumors. “We are not an army of evangelists,” she added.

'Methodical conversion'?

But Ramid’s client, Kadr Ighirri, says GWA’s “methodical conversion” of his 12-year-old son left him troubled by violent visions and alienated from his family and culture.

Unsatisfied with the expulsions of the school’s leaders, Mr. Ighirri, who speaks fluent English and manages a multinational company, hopes Moroccan authorities’ investigation will shed light on what was happening in the school.

“It must be established who was responsible; authorities must determine if the school is innocent,” Ighirri says. “There were conditions present in this school that resulted in what happened to my son – these conditions must not be allowed to persist,” he said.

He charges that GWA faculty told his son he was a “chosen one” and encouraged him to pray to Jesus, all the while warning him not to speak to his family about the matter. When the boy shared with faculty his fearful visions of Jesus and Satan fighting over him in the schoolyard, Ighirri says they told him, "Jesus decided to come to you himself because you were born to a Muslim family."

The complaint names 12 teachers and administrators thought to have encouraged the boy’s conversion.

One former teacher, who was unwilling to be named, says that “very Christian” teachers were sending mixed messages to Muslim students out of the classroom, and that some students asked her if they would go to heaven if they did not believe in a Christian God.

But MacArthur denied all that at the recent press conference. “We know of no staff member who has tried to shake the faith of a Muslim child in this school,” she said. School officials accuse the complainants of defamation and of seeking conservative political gain by painting foreigners in a negative light.

Ighirri denies any political motive. “I thought when we brought the suit that this was an individual case,” he says. He says he changed his mind after seeing the website lesenfantsdumaroc.com, which is run by parents and former faculty and airs accounts of proselytizing at GWA, alongside information about faculty and board members’ affiliations with churches and Christian charities.

Many parents still loyal

Many parents are pledging their loyalty to the school.

Meredith Belghiti, an American mother of three who converted to Islam after marrying a Moroccan man, believes children should be taught to respect all religions. “In America, we have freedom of religion – the right to practice what you believe – and that’s what GW teaches. If we have a board and teachers formed of good, practicing Christians, I am very excited about that. Because these are people with good moral values,” she says.

Alain Jaques-Amrhar, a Swiss parent who believes the proselytism charges are unfounded, said the controversy seemed to be a backward step for Morocco.

“Morocco’s enormous development was one of the reasons we moved here from Switzerland. This seems like a regression. If this school was closed [by authorities], we would go back to Switzerland,” he says.

“The school is a little lab of the world. We didn’t have coexistence like this before,” said a Moroccan parent who supports the school and asked to remain anonymous. “For us, this is [like] a political game, in which the school and our children are hostages.”

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