USCIRF Annual Report 2011 - Additional Countries Closely Monitored: Morocco

[Covers April 1, 2010 to March 31, 2011]

A USCIRF delegation traveled to Morocco in October 2010 at the invitation of the government of Morocco. Earlier in 2010, the Moroccan government had summarily expelled or denied re-entry to approximately 150 expatriate Christians, including 45 Americans, allegedly for proselytizing. The expulsions, which contrast with the government's general respect for due process and religious tolerance, deeply concerned several members of the U.S. Congress, who asked USCIRF to engage the Moroccan government on the issue. USCIRF's visit resulted in Moroccan government officials promising a number of procedural concessions related to the deportations.

The USCIRF delegation met in Rabat and Casablanca with a range of high-level Moroccan government officials, religious leaders, and civil society activists, as well as U.S. Ambassador Samuel Kaplan and other U.S. Embassy staff. The delegation met with the Ministers of Interior, Justice, and Islamic Affairs, as well as the Secretary-General from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition, the delegation met with the government-appointed Senior Council of Oulema, of which the King of Morocco serves as chair. A smaller USCIRF delegation also visited the Village of Hope, an orphanage in Ein Leuh previously run by 16 expatriates, including Dutch, British, and American nationals, who had been expelled by Moroccan government authorities in March 2010.

Government officials and civil society activists alike pointed out the many significant reforms that have been undertaken since King Muhammad VI came to power in 1999, particularly promoting the rights of women, reforming the family code, establishing the mourchidat program for female Muslim preachers, advancing human rights generally, and combating extremism. Government interlocutors stated that the Moroccan constitution guarantees religious freedom and that the King, as "Commander of the Faithful," is responsible for protecting all people of various faiths and creeds living in Morocco.

While the Moroccan government traditionally has been tolerant of the presence and practice of faiths other than Islam in the country, over several months in early-to-mid-2010, nearly 150 foreign Christians living in Morocco, including at least 45 Americans, were deported, denied re-entry, or had deportation orders entered against them for allegedly proselytizing Moroccan Muslims. These actions were taken with no notice to the individuals involved or to the U.S. Embassy. There was an initial wave of dozens of such actions in March, a second in May, and a third in July. Some of the individuals had been living in the country for more than 20 years without incident. None was charged with a crime; rather, all the cases were administrative and involved civil charges. The Moroccan government claimed that the deportations were based on thorough investigations and that it had informed those affected that they could appeal. Most of the deported individuals have said that they were not informed of either the evidence against them or given the opportunity to appeal. Some were given less than 48 hours to leave the country.

During USCIRF's visit, Moroccan government officials agreed that certain procedures remained available to the expatriates who had been expelled or denied re-entry. The Minister of Justice stated that any lawyer representing an expatriate will have the opportunity to lodge a complaint with his Ministry's Office of the Secretary-General seeking access to the dossier containing evidence that supports the deportation. The Ministry of Justice would then appeal to the Ministry of Interior to release the file, which is permitted under the law. The Minister of Interior conceded that lawyers for those individuals appealing expulsions should be permitted to secure access to their dossiers and any other evidence against them from the administrative court. Furthermore, he confirmed that anyone who wants to lodge an appeal should get one.

Since USCIRF's October 2010 visit, U.S. Embassy Rabat has informed all Americans with pending cases, as well as their lawyers, about the details of USCIRF's meetings with the Ministries of Justice and Interior regarding the procedures that the government agreed would be afforded to those who wished to obtain the dossiers against them. It does not appear that any Americans or expatriates tested the procedural guarantees and sought to obtain their dossiers during the reporting period. According to the Embassy, most of the Americans who were expelled or denied re-entry have either moved on or do not wish to pursue appeals. During its visit, the USCIRF delegation met with some Americans who received deportation orders in June 2010. After intervention by the U.S. Embassy and the State Department, the Moroccan government rescinded these deportation orders and the individuals remain in the country.

However, there are a few ongoing cases. One American, who was expelled from Morocco in March 2010, is now based outside the country with his family and is still pursuing his case. There is also another case involving several of the former Village of Hope (VOH) workers of various nationalities, including Americans. This case remains in limbo, in part because their lawyer in Morocco has not attempted to obtain the dossiers supporting the deportation orders against his clients. Simultaneously, U.S.-based lawyers representing the former VOH workers are looking for an additional lawyer in Morocco to bring a separate claim stemming from the deportations concerning assets taken by the Moroccan government.

During USCIRF's visit, the delegation repeatedly was told by government officials that Moroccan law prohibits proselytism of Muslims (but not any other religious group), which can result in a fine or prison sentence. The USCIRF delegation expressed its concern that the law is contrary to Morocco's obligations under international human rights law, including Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Morocco is a party. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief noted in a 2005 report, "[m]issionary activity is accepted as a legitimate expression of religion or belief and therefore enjoys the protection afforded by article 18 of ICCPR and other relevant international instruments."

The internationally-protected right to religious freedom includes the freedom to change one's religion or belief. It also includes the freedom to manifest one's religion or belief through public expression, including expression intended to persuade other individuals to change their religious beliefs or affiliation voluntarily. Such expression is an essential manifestation of religious belief, and in some cases a mandatory injunction, for members of many faith communities. Also, the freedom to change religion would be diminished if the freedom to engage in religious persuasion were not ensured.

However, religious persuasion is not an unlimited right, and governments can restrict this type of expression in some circumstances. Under the ICCPR, governments can limit the freedom to manifest one's religion or belief, but any such limitations must be both "prescribed by law" and "necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights and freedom of others." They also must be consistent with the ICCPR's provisions that require equality before the law for all and that prohibit any measures that would destroy guaranteed rights.

In assessing their validity under international human rights law, limitations on religious persuasion must be examined carefully and with some measure of suspicion. They are often broad, vague, and discriminatory, and they can mask the intention to silence unpopular religious expression or to vitiate the religious freedom rights of, or even to persecute, particular groups or individuals. Governments that prohibit religious persuasion and/or conversion often argue that doing so is necessary to protect vulnerable individuals from being converted by force, fraud, or duress. However, those types of improper conduct, whether used in a religious or any other context, are already prohibited under laws against assault, blackmail, fraud, bribery, and duress. This calls into question the need for additional laws specific to religious activity, particularly given such laws' frequent vagueness and risk of abuse.

USCIRF will continue to monitor closely any additional developments with regard to these issues.


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