Fatwa Issuing Death Penalty for Converts Worries Morocco’s Christians

A special Report by ICC

05/17/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Morocco’s highest religious authority has issued a fatwa calling for the execution of Muslims who leave Islam, raising questions about its possible outcomes and leaving Christian converts fearing for their lives.

On Apr. 16, the governmental High Council of Ulemas, the highest religious authority in Morocco, issued a fatwa that was published in Arabic-language daily Akhbar al-Youm, stating that Muslims who reject their faith should be “condemned to death.”

Although not a law in itself, a fatwa is an Islamic ruling on a particular subject from a learned religious authority based on their interpretation of the Quran. “A fatwa doesn’t automatically become part of the criminal law…that’s why we don’t actually know what it’s going to look like in practice or principle,” a representative of Middle East Concern, an advocacy group for persecuted Christians, told Morning Star News. “We can’t say it’s actually going to affect people, because we don’t know.”

Fatwa Precedes Persecution

Since it is not a law, debate is raging in Morocco over how the fatwa will translate into action, especially since it makes Muslim converts to Christ eligible for execution. “The fatwa showed us that our country is still living in the old centuries – no freedom, no democracy,” a Moroccan Christian was quoted as saying. “Unfortunately, we feel that we aren’t protected. We can be arrested or now even killed any time and everywhere.”

A pastor near the northwestern city of Marrakech who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons added, “There’s a lot of confusion and discussion in Morocco right now about the fatwa. We fear that if the fatwa is approved, the government will use it to harass us and even arrest us during our meetings and the fundamentalists will have an excuse to harm us.”

The decision for the fatwa was based on verses from the Quran and verses from the Hadith, particularly one that quotes the Prophet Muhammad, saying, “If somebody [a Muslim] discards his religion, kill him,” (Sahih al-Bukhari 3017). Islamic scholars use the Hadith, also known as the “Sayings and Deeds of the Prophet,” along with the Quran as a basis for determining Sharia law – the most common version of which involves a strict moral and religious Islamic code that even moderate Muslims tend to resist.

However, even if the fatwa does not translate into a law, it can potentially intensify persecution, giving extremists a tool to target and abuse Christians. By issuing the fatwa, Morocco’s religious authorities have unmasked their distaste for Christians and revealed their intent to treat them as second class citizens who do not have the right to choose their faith without risking execution.

Existing Laws

According to existing Moroccan laws, “anyone attempting to undermine the faith of a Muslim or convert him to another religion” is liable for six months to three years in prison. The law does not prohibit conversion, which is illegal in most Muslim countries and punishable by death in countries like Saudi Arabia, although it is reportedly as a deterrent and people are rarely executed for apostasy.

However, existing laws are already exploited to persecute Christians. As ICC’s Middle-East Regional Manager, Aidan Clay, says, “The Moroccan government lost credibility among international human rights groups in 2010 when it deported more than 70 foreign Christian aid workers on charges of proselytizing without granting due process rights to a hearing. Moreover, a Moroccan Christian, Jamaa Ait Bakrim, continues to languish in prison to this day after being arrested in 2005 and given a 15-year sentence for allegedly sharing his Christian faith with a Muslim.”

“When a Moroccan comes to Christ, sooner or later, they are going to be confronted by the police. It’s what they call ‘police baptism.’ Police baptism is what happens when someone gets confronted by the secret police,” a European Christian, who visited Morocco for more than 10 years to help converts before the government banned him, was quoted as saying. The purpose of such interrogation is to intimidate Christians into abandoning their new-found faith. In some cases, it has been successful.

A Tool for Police

The issuing of the fatwa has the potential to worsen the situation in Morocco by giving the police a new tool to exploit for the persecution of Christians. “It will give the secret police a tool to persecute Moroccan Christians. It will certainly increase persecution – I’m sure,” the visiting Christian added. Whether it is employed or not, it will certainly discourage converts from sharing their faith with others. “For those who are already Christian, it can increase their burden, but it will really put the threat on any type of outreach and evangelism,” he added.

North African nations are notorious for discouraging proselytizing by force and by intimidation, as well as employing manipulative legal strategies to make life difficult for Christians. In Libya, there has been a sudden increase in the arrests of Christians. In Egypt, as well as other Muslim countries, it is nearly impossible for converts to change the religious status on their state-issued identification cards. However, Christians who convert to Islam have no problem changing their cards.

Morocco must not imitate its neighbors. The fatwa has given the country an opportunity to honor its own pledge to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which, in Article 18, upholds an individual’s right to choose one’s own religion or belief.

The Moroccan government needs to speak out against the fatwa, discouraging any threat to religious freedom and affirming the value of Muslims who have become Christians by guaranteeing their legal rights and endorsing their equal and rightful place in society. The government’s passivity on the matter will only embolden extremists and undermine its integrity.

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