I’ve started praying a lot more since moving to Morocco. Much of it occurs while walking down unlit alleyways of a medina, or during taxi rides, in which you and your 5 closest new friends crowd into a tired Mercedes diesel or minivan and jettison down chaotic streets – dodging dogs, potholes, motorcycles, donkey carts, and horses along the way. Particularly bumpy rides provide fantastic inspiration for heartfelt negotiations with God, in which I shamelessly offer to swap my sinful ways for salvation if only I can live just a little longer.
I’m still working on salvation though. A little while ago I made the trip to a western supermarket in Marrakech to purchase a couple bottles of Sahari Reserve; a Moroccan wine produced in the formerly French vineyards outside of Meknes in central Morocco. It’s worth noting though that whenever a person buys wine here, discretion is paramount. Although alcohol is legally produced, taxed, and consumed by Moroccans, it can still carry a negative stigma in an Islamic culture.
Many of the French owned supermarkets in large cities have a roped off corner in the store where alcohol is sold separately, and such areas often come equipped with a less conspicuous exit. This way, patrons aren’t seen walking out. They also have separate exits, I suspect, to avoid offending their other customers.
I myself walked out this less conspicuous exit with a noticeably heavier backpack. But as I stepped outside, I saw something unexpected in the nearby skyline. Amid Mosque towers and modern apartment buildings stood the silhouette of a church steeple and small cross.
Between the aforementioned taxi rides, the contents of my bag, and the creeping guilt of a year’s worth of sinning since my last Church service, I soon found myself in front of its gates.
It was a Catholic chapel, and the first church I had been able to successfully enter since moving to Morocco. After poking around, it struck me that the congregation placed a strong emphasis upon public works, particularly with disabled children in the area. There are approximately 40 thousand Christians in Morocco, and they are all legally forbidden from evangelizing. I wonder if the Christian community here focuses more on demonstrating their faith and presence through good deeds. If that’s true, I wonder if that’s not such a terrible unintended consequence. God works in mysterious ways, I’ve been told.
While sitting somewhere in the pews pondering all this, the Muslim call to prayer erupted from a mosque located directly across the street, and it filled the church halls with the Islamic call to worship in Classical Arabic.
I don’t think I’ve heard anything outside a hymnal while sitting in a church pew before. It was a unique and memorable moment. There was something about it that briefly illuminated the experience of being a member of a minority religion.
Christianity has always been the dominant religion in my travels, and I had never experienced that sensation before while travelling in North America, South America, or Europe. And as the melody of this society’s preferred religion drowned out any sound within the church, it made me curious about Christianity’s history in Morocco.
I was surprised to learn that Christianity first came to Morocco approximately 1700 years ago, and that Morocco has a Christian element to its past. The country is officially 99 percent Sunni Muslim, and it sometimes seems like there is a Mosque on every corner, so it’s difficult to imagine. But given Morocco’s location at the crossroads of Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
Most of what I have read and heard about religion in Morocco emphasizes its Islamic and Judaic heritage. But it seems that all of the Abrahamic Faiths have found refuge in Morocco across the millennia.
At the same time Saint Augustine was reshaping early Christian theology from his home in Algeria, Christianity had already spread throughout Northern Morocco, and much of the Roman/Byzantine Empire in 300 C.E.
Monotheism probably was not a revolutionary concept when the first Christians arrived in Morocco. Many Jewish-Moroccan communities thrived in ports and trade zones across the country. Interestingly, both Saint Augustine and many of the Jewish Moroccans were Amaziert, the indigenous people of Morocco and much of North Africa. (AKA Berbers)
But as Islam swept across North Africa and Iberia in the 8th century, Christian congregations diminished, and the Muslim call to prayer eventually became the beating heart of Moroccan society. To this day, many Moroccan Christians refer to the omnipotent deity I call God as “Allah”, just as their Muslim brethren do. Again, the country is 99 percent Muslim.
As one of my friends recently pointed out, telling someone you’re Christian or Jewish in Morocco can sometimes feel ludicrously similar to talking about race with a reformed racist relative back home. “Ohh. Ugh.. I like Christians. Christians are safe in Morocco. I have even had one or two Christian friends in the past!”
Other times, people can get slightly assertive about converting you. In my experience, this is often amplified during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic Calendar. Interestingly, I’ve found the only thing that might aggravate a passionate evangel in Morocco more than telling them you’re Christian is telling them that you are an Atheist. Christianity, as limited as many people’s understanding of it may be, is at least still within the same ballpark as Islam. One God. Descendants of Abraham. Etc. But to believe in NOTHING? That’s often seen as somewhat shocking around these parts. In some ways, I think being a Christian Volunteer is easier than being atheist or agnostic Volunteer in Morocco when it comes to explaining personal beliefs.
A lot of Moroccan friends in my Dar Chabab (community youth center) have expressed interest in learning more about religions around the world. It has been a fun chance to compare and contrast tidbits about Christian cultures with Islam in Morocco.
The experience of being treated well as member of a minority religion has reminded me just how important it is for us in the United States to remain vigilant about doing the same. This Easter will be a fantastic opportunity for me to reflect upon that.
At a time in which Christian populations are on the decline across the Middle East and North Africa, I am especially grateful and lucky to live in such a welcoming place where I am free to be myself, more or less, without reproach.
I think most everyone in my life here knows that I am not Muslim, and that I come from a different culture with a different set of social rules and norms.
I don’t fast during Ramadan, and yes, I truly do miss bacon. And with almost everyone here, that seems to be perfectly fine.
Fortunately, though, I am spending Easter in Spain where I should be able to be able to enjoy plenty of bacon. Equally good, I’ll be able to finally see some of the famous Semana Santa religious processions in Madrid. Photos to come. Inshallah.
As always, thanks for taking the time to read my blog.
I wish all things good unto each of you this Easter holiday.