Pope Francis arrives in Morocco on Saturday for a visit which will see him meet Muslim leaders and migrants ahead of a mass with the country’s minority Catholic community.
The spiritual leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics was invited by King Mohammed VI as part of the “development of interreligious dialogue”, according to Moroccan authorities.
Improving relations with other religions has been a priority for the Argentine pontiff, whose papacy has been marred by a wave of child sex abuse allegations against clergy.
The Moroccan capital Rabat has stepped up security ahead of his arrival.
Buildings have been repainted, streets decorated and lawns manicured ahead of the first papal visit to Morocco since John Paul II in 1985.
Francis is due to be welcomed at the airport by the king and presented with dates and almond milk. Then the pontiff will step into his Popemobile and the monarch into a limousine.
They will drive to a welcome ceremony at a mosque and a mausoleum, attended by 25,000 and beamed onto giant screens, before the king hosts Francis at the royal palace.
The monarch is known as the “commander of the faithful” in Morocco, where 99 percent of the population is Muslim.
Francis will also visit an institute where around 1,300 students are studying to become imams and preachers, teaching “moderate Islam” and backed by the king.
“It’s a very significant event, the first time that a pope is welcomed to an institute for the training of imams,” said Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti.
During the visit, Francis is due to hear from two students — one African and one European — as well as a statement by Morocco’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs.
A concert drawing inspiration from Islam, Christianity and Judaism is also on the agenda.
– Meeting migrants –
Last month Francis visited the United Arab Emirates, where he met with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s prestigious seat of learning.
The two signed a document on “human fraternity for world peace”, which among other things called for “freedom of belief” and “full citizenship” rights for minorities.
Francis will not hesitate to refer to the text, which from now on he will give to all heads of state, Gisotti said.
AFP/File / FADEL SENNA
Around 30,000 to 35,000 Catholics live in Morocco, many of whom are from sub-Saharan Africa
In Morocco, where Islam is the state religion, authorities are keen to stress the country’s “religious tolerance” which allows Christians and Jews to worship freely.
But Moroccans are automatically considered Muslim if they are not born into the Jewish community, apostasy is socially frowned upon, and proselytising is criminalised.
Those who try to “rock the faith of a Muslim or to convert him to another religion” risk a prison term of up to three years.
After years in the shadows, since 2017 the small number of converts have called openly for the right to live “without persecution” and “without discrimination”.
Around 30,000 to 35,000 Catholics live in Morocco, many of them from sub-Saharan Africa.
The pope is due to finish his Saturday schedule by meeting migrants at a centre run by Catholic humanitarian organisation Caritas.