CASABLANCA — The historic visit of Pope Francis to Morocco cannot be reduced to one dimension, as too many in the media are doing. In their typically myopic way, the media think the visit is just a photo-op or an excuse for flowery speeches about dialogue between Muslims and Christians.
Blinded by their own biases, the media miss that the Pope’s visit deepens and accelerates a relationship has been more than three decades in the making.
And that relationship, between Christendom’s most widely followed leader and a king who spiritually represents millions of Muslims spread out across five Northwest African states, has already borne fruit. Christians, along with Jews and other religious minorities, now enjoy legal and constitutional rights equal to those of Muslims in Morocco. How many Arab nations can say the same?
On a recent Christmas Eve in Marrakesh, a Gothic-style church offered mass in English, French, and Arabic. There were no armed guards outside the sanctuary, as you would invariably find in Egypt or other countries. Instead, people freely worshipped and then lined up a nearby bakery in the nouvelle ville to carry home pastries for Christmas morning. Again, how many other Arab nations could point the same somnolent scenes in their cities?
This extraordinary religious freedom is the direct result of the kings of Morocco talking to the popes of Vatican City.
Morocco became the first ever Muslim country to formally receive the Pope in the 1980s.
The John Paul II visit began a very strong symbolic gesture. As he reached the bottom of the jet way stairs, he gathered his robes in his hands, knelt, and kissed the ground. He was blessing a Muslim land and acknowledging meaning, the bevy of shared values— monotheism, written (not arbitrary) law, human rights, religious tolerance, and peace. That televised moment, the world’s most powerful Christian kissing the ground, brought tears to many across Morocco. No one alive in the kingdom in those days has ever forgotten it. It was the start, as the movie Casablanca says toward its end, of a “beautiful friendship.”
This visit paved the way for other popes to visit Muslim lands, building peace between the planet’s largest monotheistic faiths.
In a millennium before, Christians and Muslims met in war, during the Crusades. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they met again as Muslim pirate ships raided Irish and French shores, taking many Christians as slaves. Some of America’s original colonists, including Miles Standish, had been an Ottoman slave. The Pilgrims of Massachusetts had the crew of one of their returning ships taken into slavery in sight of the English coast, near Plymouth. But, in the 20th century, the relationship at last begin to turn. The British joined with the Arabs to free them from Ottoman control. America partnered with Arab states to contain Soviet communism and to fight terrorism. The Vatican saw its moment, in the 1980s, and began a series of visits to build tolerance and mutual understanding.
The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church, the home of some 1 billion believers on all of the world’s continents, and the kingdom of Morocco, has developed steadily from there.
To understand how these leaders are able to meet, observers should recall that the King of Morocco and the Pope are religious authorities. King Mohammed VI is also known as "Amir Al Mouminine," the commander of the faithful. Not only in Morocco, but in large swath of sub-Saharan countries, prayers are said in his name every day.
On the religious level, there is, therefore, a real meeting of the minds. The timing and importance of this meeting could hardly be more important: All monotheistic religions face issues with terrorists carrying out murder in the name of their religions. It is essential that these religious leaders send out the message that their respective religions bar murder, suicide, kidnapping, rape, and abuse of the vulnerable.
And, the Pope and king are also political leaders. The Pope is the head of state of the Vatican, one of the world’s smallest states, but a recognized government nevertheless. The King of Morocco is Head of State, Chairman of the Al Quds Committee and therefore a voice that carries both in the Arab-Muslim sphere, in Africa, and in the world.
There are three themes on which the king and the Pope have sought common ground: Migration, environmental protection, and combatting terrorism. On each of these, King Mohammed VI and Pope Francis are in firm agreement.
The Pope pleaded for a respectful reception of immigrants, asking churches to welcome them in the spirit of compassion. During a recent visit to Panama City, the Pope referred to fear of migrants as “senseless.”
The King of Morocco, a land which migrants trek through on their way to the promised lands of Western Europe, has signed laws to ensure human rights to migrants and to combat human trafficking.
The positions of the pope are very much in line with those of Morocco in the preservation of nature. Raising awareness of environmental issues is part of the agenda of these two heads of state.
Finally, in the fight against terrorism, the king and Pope speak with one voice. They speak against it as both religious and political leaders.
And Morocco’s intelligence services have assisted American interrogators inside its facility at Guantanamo Bay. And these are but two, among many, examples.
Once again, where the media saw a photo-op, a more careful observer would see the gears of history turning, turning toward a more peaceful and cooperative relationship between the lands of Islam and Christianity. And that’s a pretty big story to miss.
Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan Publisher. He sits on the Board of Directors of The Atlantic Council in Washington and International Councillors at The Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's also on the Board of Trustees of the The Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and member of The National Interest’s Advisory Council. Mr. Charai is a Mid-East policy advisor in Washington whose articles have appeared in the major U.S. media. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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