The respectful welcome Moroccans are preparing for Pope Francis means that “a new phase of religious coexistence” has begun, says Italian Father Claudio Ghilardi, who spent 11 years in Morocco. From 2007 to 2018—up until only a few months ago—Father Ghilardi served as chaplain of the small English- and Italian-speaking Catholic communities in the important and iconic city of Casablanca, at Christ the King Church.
Pope Francis will be in Morocco March 30-31, for the first papal visit to the country since 1985.
The principle of religious freedom poses problems that are difficult to solve in the Islamic world, Father Ghilardi said. Yet Pope Francis is well known in Morocco, he said, especially for his love for the poor. Father Ghiraldi predicts that the Pontiff will be received with “esteem and respect.”
Here is Father Ghilardi’s full interview with Catholic World Report about the upcoming papal visit.
CWR: What are the expectations for this trip in Morocco?
Father Claudio Ghiraldi: The Moroccan people look forward to the arrival of Pope Francis and are preparing to receive him with esteem and respect. This, for those who are attentive to the Islamic world, means that we have entered a new phase of religious coexistence. This was unthinkable, to say the least, up until a few years ago.
CWR: You spent 11 years in Morocco, as chaplain to English- and Italian-speaking Catholics. What was your experience like?
Father Ghiraldi: For 11 years, I was parish priest at the Church of Christ the King in Casablanca, and I was able to carry out my ministry without any problems, assisting Italian, American, English, Filipino, and French faithful … For six years, from 2009 to 2015, I was appointed by the bishop of Rabat to assist and minister to Christian prisoners, and on Tuesdays of every week, I carried out my ministry in prisons, and even here, never encountered problems.
CWR: The Moroccan Catholic community is very small. Can you give us some numbers to help understand it better?
Father Ghiraldi: The predominant religion in Morocco is Islam. The Christians present consist of foreigners who for various reasons are in Morocco. According to authorities, the Christians are about 30,000 out of a population of about 35 million Moroccans.
These figures are rough estimates. The truth is, it is not clear how many Christians there are in Morocco. If you reason that French residing in Morocco are more than 80,000, Spanish almost 20,000, then add the Italians and other Europeans, you can legitimately reason that Christians are many more than those officially declared, even if a large number among them may have been involved in mixed marriages, in which case they renounced being Christians.
CWR: Were there serious limitations to your pastoral care as a foreign Catholic priest?
Father Ghiraldi: The limitations that a priest must accept lie in respecting Moroccan law, which affirms one cannot proselytize. However, nothing, I stress nothing, forbids him to live as a Christian and a pastor in a Muslim land, even exercising a Christian cultural ministry.
CWR: Besides the numbers, please tell us something about the composition of the Catholic community and its daily life.
Father Ghiraldi: The Catholic community, compared to the population, is small but lively. It consists predominantly of young South Saharan students and workers, coming from 24 countries or ethnic groups who have found universities in Morocco for their studies or jobs, since Morocco is also a land of opportunities for many. Many Europeans, especially given the economic and [employment] crisis in their countries, are pursuing new opportunities and endeavors in Morocco. There is certainly, as well, a large Filipino English-speaking community, employed in many services. There are many Christian employees and officials of embassies and consulates present in the country.
Ultimately, the Catholic Church in Morocco can be described as the synthesis of many different linguistic and ethnic expressions, grouped in the two dioceses of Rabat and Tangier. It is a Church that offers its testimony of faith in Jesus without any kind of problem, in compliance with the current laws.
CWR: The Pope’s journeys to Islamic countries highlight the underlying themes of religious freedom and civilian rights. How would you describe the situation of religious freedom in Morocco, based on your own personal experience?
Father Ghiraldi: The Moroccan Islamic legislation permits the principle of freedom of worship, not of religious freedom, as in all other Islamic states. However, the novelty of Morocco, compared to the other states, is this: after the famous Islamic Spring, in a short time, the Moroccan Constitutional Charter was updated, widening women’s rights, almost equal to the European [countries], and inserting the fundamental principle of freedom of conscience.
CWR: And what about religious freedom?
Father Ghiraldi: Islamic legal scholars and the Ulema, the highest religious authority, are questioning whether the principle of freedom of conscience also includes the principle of religious freedom, a problem that is difficult to solve in the Islamic world… However, it is important that someone talk about this, and in this sense, Morocco is at the forefront of the Islamic world. …
I judge Morocco to be a very respectful and tolerant Islamic country towards other religious expressions, and among these it has a deep respect and esteem for the Catholic religion and its representative, the Roman Pontiff.
CWR: Who is Pope Francis for the people of Morocco? What do they know about him and what are their impressions?
Father Ghiraldi: Pope Francis is a well-known character in Morocco, since the media pay a great deal of attention to him and show great esteem for his love for the poor. He is also well known from Moroccan emigrants who are are or were present in Italy, who later return to their homeland and speak well of him.
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