By Cindy Wooden
There was a moment during Pope Francis’s flying 28-hour visit on 30 March to Morocco, an overwhelmingly Muslim country, when hearts stopped beating.
A man broke through barricades in Rabat, the country’s capital, and rushed towards a motorcade carrying King Mohammed VI of Morocco and Pope Francis.
Later, it transpired the man was a teenager who intended to appeal to King Mohammed regarding his parents’ health.
He was detained and later led away. But the event underscored the sensitivity surrounding the pope’s visit to a Muslim country in a time when radicalised Islam is a major global problem.
During his visit, Pope Francis did his best to lay the groundwork for closer ties between Christians and Muslims in a country where 99 per cent of the population are Muslim.
With thousands of people gathered on the city’s main esplanade, the pope and the king spoke of peace, tolerance, respect and religious freedom.
The king, who is constitutionally assigned as “commander of the faithful,” told Pope Francis that role includes being “guarantor of the free practice of religion” for Muslims, Christians and Jews.
“The three Abrahamic religions were not created to be tolerant of one another out of some unavoidable fate or out of courtesy to one another,” King Mohammed said.
“The reason they exist is to open up to one another and to know one another, so as to do one another good.”
The king told the pope, “What all terrorists have in common is not religion, but rather ignorance of religion.”
Pope Francis described his visit as another occasion to promote interreligious dialogue as part of the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the meeting of St Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil in Egypt.
The meeting of the saint and sultan during the Crusades, he said, “shows that the courage to encounter one another and extend a hand of friendship is a pathway of peace and harmony for humanity, whereas extremism and hatred cause division and destruction.”
Later, Pope Francis and King Mohammed issued a joint statement on the importance of Jerusalem. The pair pleaded for international recognition of its “unique and sacred character.”
They said it was important to preserve the city “as the common patrimony of humanity and especially the followers of the three monotheistic religions, as a place of encounter and as a symbol of peaceful coexistence, where mutual respect and dialogue can be cultivated.”
Moving from ideals and principles to concrete examples, Pope Francis met with Muslim men and women studying to be prayer leaders and preachers and with dozens of migrants assisted by Caritas.
Both the pope and King visited a school the king founded to counter violent strains of Islam by training imams and “murshid,” men and women preachers and spiritual guides.
Pope Francis ended his day at the Rabat Caritas centre for migrants, a facility providing special care to women, unaccompanied minors and others among the most vulnerable of the estimated 80,000 migrants currently in Morocco.
He called for “a change of attitude toward migrants, one that sees them as persons, not numbers, and acknowledges their rights and dignity”.
“The issue of migration will never be resolved by raising barriers, fomenting fear of others or denying assistance to those who legitimately aspire to a better life for themselves and their families,” he said.
Meeting the migrants, he insisted that “no one can be indifferent to this painful situation” of so many millions of migrants around the world. It is “a wound that cries out to heaven,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Christian mission is not about numbers of converts, but about changing people and the world by being witnesses of God’s mercy and love, Pope Francis told missionaries.
“Jesus did not choose us and send us forth to become more numerous,” the pope said on 31 March as he met Catholic priests and religious leaders of other Christian churches in St Peter’s Cathedral in Rabat.
Jesus “called us to a mission. He put us in the midst of society like a handful of yeast: the yeast of the beatitudes and the fraternal love by which, as Christians, we can all join in making present his kingdom,” the pope said.
The success of a Christian mission, he said, is not so much about the space Christians occupy, “but rather by our capacity to generate change and to awaken wonder and compassion.”
“The problem is not when we are few in number,” the pope said, “but when we are insignificant, salt that has lost the flavour of the Gospel or lamps that no longer shed light.”
In Morocco, the pope said Christians are called to be “a living sacrament of the dialogue that God wants to initiate with each man and woman.”
Celebrating Mass with members of Morocco’s tiny Catholic community, Pope Francis praised them for the many ways they “bear witness to the Gospel of mercy in this land.”
At the Mass on 31 March in an arena at Rabat’s Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium, the pope honoured the way that Catholics reach out to help their Muslim brothers and sisters and the thousands of migrants who pass through Morocco, hoping to reach Europe.
“I encourage you to continue to let the culture of mercy grow, a culture in which no one looks at others with indifference, or averts his eyes in the face of their suffering,” he said.
The Pope’s visit to Morocco may have been short but it covered much ground. Pope Francis will be hoping he has laid the groundwork for improved relations between Muslims and Christians – and helped Morocco’s tiny Christian population carve out a niche for themselves in this overwhelmingly Muslim society.