By Philip Pullella and Ahmed Eljechtimi
RABAT (Reuters) – Pope Francis told the tiny Catholic community in predominantly Muslim Morocco on Sunday that their mission was not to covert their neighbors but to live in brotherhood with other faiths.
Francis has used his two-day trip to stress inter-faith dialogue. He has also backed Moroccan King Mohammed VI’s efforts to spread a form of Islam that promotes inter-religious dialogue and rejects violence in God’s name.
Morocco’s 23,000 Roman Catholics – most of them French and other European expatriates and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa – make up less than one percent of the population of 35 million.
“Christians are a small minority in this country. Yet, to my mind, this is not a problem, even though I realize that at times it can be difficult for some of you,” he said at a meeting with Catholic community leaders in Rabat’s cathedral.
Conservative Catholics have criticized the pope’s opposition to organized or aggressive recruiting of potential converts.
“The Church grows not through proselytism but by attraction,” Francis said to applause.
“This means, dear friends, that our mission as baptized persons, priests and consecrated men and women, is not really determined by the number or size of spaces that we occupy, but rather by our capacity to generate change and to awaken wonder and compassion,” he said.
Moroccan authorities do not recognize Moroccan converts to Christianity, many of whom worship secretly in homes. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is banned, as it is in many Muslim countries, and proselytising is punishable by up to three years in prison.
“The problem is not when we are few in number, but when we are insignificant,” Francis said, adding that Catholics were called to be an integral part of inter-religious dialogue in a world “torn apart by the policies of extremism and division”.
At a Mass for about 10,000 catholics in a sports arena before he was due to return to Rome, the Pope also stressed the need for inter-religious dialogue, saying people should resist “classifying ourselves according to different moral, social, ethnic or religious criteria”.
On Saturday, Francis and King Mohammed VI visited an institute the monarch founded to train imams and male and female preachers of Islam.
Morocco promotes itself as an oasis of religious tolerance in a region torn by militancy. It has offered training to Muslim preachers from Africa and Europe on what it describes as moderate Islam.
At Saturday’s event, Francis praised the king for providing “sound training to combat all forms of extremism, which so often lead to violence and terrorism, and which, in any event, constitute an offence against religion and against God himself”.
Also on Saturday, Jewish leaders joined Christian representatives in the front row at two events presided over by the pope and the monarch on interfaith dialogue.
Francis’ appeal for inter-religious dialogue was made more poignant on Sunday by the presence in Rabat cathedral of Father Jean-Pierre Schumacher, a 95-year-old French monk who survived what is known as the Tibhirine massacre in Algeria.
In March 1996, seven French monks were kidnapped in a monastery in the central Algerian village of Tibhirine during the civil war between the government and Islamist rebel groups.
The monks were held for about two months and found dead, except Schumacher, who managed to escape.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian)