“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their colour [or religion].”
- Maya Angelou
As we’ve just come to the end of the Easter period, I was brought back to a challenging memory that took place around this time of year in 2020. Wishing to seek some familiarity and peaceful sanctuary during my year abroad in Morocco and the eruption of COVID-19, I went to one of the only churches in Fez, from which I conveniently lived around the corner.
Before I get into the rest of the story, let me give you a bit of context. While it is not illegal to convert to Christianity in Morocco, it is an incredibly sensitive issue. The majority of the population in Morocco is Muslim, and the government closely monitors any religious activity that is not in line with the official Islamic doctrine. Even displaying curiosity about other religions is frowned upon. The government prohibits "shaking the faith of a Muslim," and any attempt to do so could result in legal action. This can make it difficult to openly share faiths and beliefs outside of Islam, and can create a climate of fear and mistrust.
Now, back to the story. Given my Algerian heritage, I can easily be mistaken as Moroccan, which is exactly what happened. At the entrance of the church, I was immediately greeted with hostility and suspicion. The man at the door asked if I was Moroccan and if I was Muslim (despite the crucifix and angel pendant hanging around my neck). I said no and was reluctantly let in. As everyone settled and the service was about to start, another man came up to me. He asked if I was Moroccan and Muslim; again, I said no and explained I was a student from London studying here for a year abroad. My answer wasn’t convincing enough so he continued to ask more questions with a stern and standoffish attitude. I did not understand why my presence in the church was an issue and created such discomfort for many members of the congregation. The sheer embarrassment of having an entirely packed congregation stare and whisper was palpable.
After a tense mass and having gained no sense of sanctuary, I spoke to the man that stood at the door. I wanted answers as to why I had been treated in such a way. Shouldn't a church be warm and welcoming to everyone regardless of their background? I discovered the reasons behind his hostility and was shocked. He told me that as a result of the government’s agenda to maintain Islam as the predominant religion in the country, the authorities do anything to get the church in trouble. There have been occasions where Moroccans were bribed to enter a church to give the police a reason to raid the church and prosecute the priest and members of the congregation. The church I went to was a particular target especially as a huge majority of the congregation was of Senegalese descent, so racism was also a driving factor in this.
Essentially, I was mistaken for a Moroccan spy that wanted to trouble them. The unfriendliness I encountered was a response triggered by their instinct to safeguard their sacred place of worship.
North Africa’s Relationship to Christianity
My grandma, who grew up in Algeria in the '50s, tells me stories of how all three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) would harmoniously cohabit and take part in each other's religious celebrations.
Today the situation seems to be very different. Now, most North African powers are Muslim and it is difficult for religious minorities to practice their faith openly and freely without discrimination and social pressure. My personal experience in Morocco highlights the tensions and challenges that Christians face all over North Africa.
Putting Differences Aside
Despite these challenges, I have hope for a more inclusive and harmonious society in North Africa. One way to achieve this is by breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions. This is a lot easier said than done but can help us all work together to educate each other and create a more empathetic and accepting society. I believe we also need more liberating policies to protect the rights of religious minorities and celebrate religious diversity. African spirituality should also be protected by these policies, because before Judaism, Christianity or Islam made it to Africa, people lived their lives by indigenous ideologies and rituals.
African spirituality plays a significant role in the relationship between Christianity and Islam, particularly in North Africa as it has influenced both religions and helped to shape their interactions with each other. Before the spread of Islam in the region, North Africa was home to a diverse array of indigenous religions and spiritual practices, many of which are still practised today, especially in Amazigh communities. These practices often incorporate elements of animism, ancestor worship, and the veneration of nature. While Christianity and Islam have become dominant religions in the region, many people continue to incorporate elements of traditional African spirituality into their religious practices. This can be seen in the syncretic forms of Christianity and Islam that have emerged in parts of North Africa, as well as in the continued practice of indigenous spiritual traditions.
What can you take away from this?
People need to be aware of the treatment of Christian minorities in North Africa and the wider MENA region because it sheds light on the general but complex issues of religious freedom and tolerance in our world. It also highlights the need for greater understanding and respect for religious diversity, as well as the importance of promoting interfaith dialogue and cooperation. By raising awareness and engaging in conversations about these issues, we can work towards creating a more wholesome society for all people, regardless of their beliefs.
Overall, Christians in North Africa and the Middle East face many social issues. As do Muslims in the Western world, where Islamophobia is rife. No one should face discrimination for their religious or spiritual beliefs, anywhere.
It is important to remember that diversity is a strength, and by embracing and celebrating our differences, we can build a more vibrant and dynamic world.
"God's love is too great to be confined to any one side of a conflict or to any one religion."
- Desmond Tutu
Dénia is our Lifestyle & Wellness Editor and a recent graduate from the University of Leeds. She is pursuing a career in international relations and diplomacy will start a Master's at SOAS in these subjects in September. Dénia is also interested in foreign languages and cultures, writing, and film-making. Her Instagram handle is @denia_beidaoui.