While the Arab Summit in Tunisia was in progress, Morocco witnessed another summit. It was between the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis II, and the Moroccan monarch, King Mohamed VI.
Although the king had extended his invitation to the pontiff before the horrific attacks against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, as it turned out the visit could not have been more appropriately timed.
Today, there is an urgent need to reaffirm the spirit of fraternity and interfaith tolerance in the face of the rise of extremist ultra-right movements and their hate mongering.
The pope’s visit to Morocco was important in many other respects, not least of which was the “Jerusalem declaration” Francis II signed during this visit.
Francis II’s reaffirmation of the Holy City’s status as a “symbol of peaceful coexistence” for Christians, Jews and Muslims is a response to Israel’s relentless attempts to Judaicise the city.
True, the statement made no reference to international resolutions pertaining to the political status of Jerusalem or to the US president’s disregard for these resolutions when he ordered the relocation of his country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Such references would have made the statement much more powerful given that King Mohamed VI chairs the Jerusalem Committee, a committee created by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to protect and promote Jerusalem’s religious, cultural and architectural heritage.
Nevertheless, the Vatican’s position on the question of Jerusalem is well known. Francis II has taken many occasions to urge respect for Jerusalem’s status quo in keeping with UN resolutions and the statement he signed in Morocco is an important reaffirmation of this.
Secondly, the papal visit boosts the Moroccan government’s policy of promoting plurality at diverse levels. Politically, Morocco and Lebanon are the only two Arab countries that have never experienced the phenomenon of a one-party system.
Ethnically and linguistically, Morocco accords a special status to the Amazigh and Amazigh culture: Tamazight is an official language alongside Arabic in the Moroccan constitution as amended in 2011.
The government also promotes religious plurality and peaceful coexistence between the three divinely revealed faiths.
Although the numbers of Jews and Christians in the country have declined for various reasons, and although most Christians now residing in Morocco come from sub-Saharan Africa and are there in order to study or to prepare for migrating to Europe, the Moroccan government is keen to preserve religious diversity and has adopted many initiatives towards this end.
A third level of significance relates to one of the pope’s remarks when presiding over a mass held in a sporting arena in Rabat. The church “grows not through proselytism but by attraction”, he said and then reiterated his call to followers to resist trying to convert others.
Pope Francis’s appeal reflects a high degree of intellectual maturity. No religion discourages proselytising, because every religion believes that it possesses the truth.
However, the pope’s appeal is extremely crucial in this age of intense friction between faiths and sects which can gravely jeopardise social peace and political stability, to which testify the innumerable cases of sectarian strife and violence around the world.
Francis II’s meeting with Christian migrants added a fourth level of significance. The meeting was a manifestation of the communal bond that binds the Catholic Church with its adherents who constitute the majority of Christians.
However, the meeting had an important political dimension as it focussed attention on the migration question and, above all, on the humanitarian needs of the migrants themselves.
The pope’s commendation of the role played by Catholic associations in offering migrants accommodation and other forms of assistance, and his opposition to all forms of collective expulsion, should be understood in this context.
My final observation pertains to the criticisms levelled by influential Islamic circles against the celebration held at the Mohamed VI institute for training imams and preachers and attended by both Pope Francis II and King Mohamed VI.
The critics were riled by the fusion of sounds from the call to prayer with Christian hymns during a concert inspired by the three faiths. They held that while peaceful coexistence, tolerance and dialogue are among the basic principles of Islam this should not be read as license to undermine the cardinal tenets of the faith.
In fact, the performance was exquisite. The voices of the soloists (a man and two women) interwove to form a single braid from which we can derive several lofty messages, most notably: all religions stem from the same origin; humanity stems from the same man and woman; and art has the power to challenge extremism. Technically, the piece included only a portion of a call to prayer which I doubt anyone in the audience interpreted as an actual call to prayer.
Moreover, after reciting the declaration of faith, the chanter shifted to verses expressing his love for the Prophet which would have certainly clarified any confusion among audience members, had it existed.
That criticism gave me considerable pause for thought. I contrasted it to the widespread welcome the Islamic world accorded to the broadcast of the call to prayer on television in New Zealand.
Why is it that some Muslims refuse to treat others as they want others to treat them? I also thought about the contradiction between that criticism and the purpose for which the Mohamed VI institute for training imams and preachers was established, which is to rectify doctrinal misconceptions among clergy and proselytisers.
I could not help but to wonder how those critics can expect to fight Islamophobia abroad when they reject the meeting with other faiths even at the level of musical composition.
We still need to translate the many documents calling for interfaith coexistence into genuine practice. We need to confront strident insistence on drawing divides between people with strong reaffirmation of humanity’s common roots. We need to be inspired by the noble significances of Pope Francis II’s visits to our Arab countries.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Pope Francis II in Morocco