Morocco Catholics urge freedom of conscience before pope visit


Casablanca (Morocco) (AFP)

Senior Catholic clergy in Morocco called Tuesday for freedom of conscience and respect for migrants' rights, ahead of a visit by Pope Francis later this month.

The pontiff is due to visit the North African country on March 30-31 at the invitation of King Mohammed VI.

He is set to meet migrants and deliver a speech on inter-religious dialogue.

The archbishop of Rabat, Cristobal Lopez Romero, said Christians in the kingdom were "grateful to enjoy full freedom of worship".

But, he said at a news conference in Rabat, "we would be happy if the Moroccan people could enjoy all freedoms, including freedom of conscience."

An estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Christians live in Morocco, more than half of them sub-Saharan Africans who have headed to Morocco to work, study or try to reach Europe.

More than 99 percent of the country's population is Sunni Muslim, with Christians, Jews, Shiite Muslims and Bahais making up the rest.

Just over 27,000 are Catholic, according to the Vatican Insider newspaper.

Islam is the state religion and the king describes himself as the "commander of the faithful".

Foreign Christians worship freely and are protected by the authorities. But those who convert to Christianity -- estimated to be a few thousand people -- do so quietly.

Santiago Angelo Martinez, archbishop of the northern city of Tangiers, said his "greatest concern" was the rights of migrants, whom he said lacked legal recourse to defend themselves.

He criticised Morocco's authorities, which last August forcefully relocated hundreds of migrants from camps and homes near the country's Mediterranean coast, taking many of them to the far south.

It was done with "a lot of violence... which is not acceptable," he said.

"We sometimes lose hope and I hope that the Pope's visit will bring progress on this issue," Martinez said.