International News

Pope’s Visit to Morocco Will Have a Spanish Flavor

By Inés San Martín

Worshippers pray in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rabat, Morocco, Nov.12, 2008. Pope Francis will meet with priests, religious men and women and the ecumenical Council of Churches at the cathedral March 31 during his visit to Morocco. (Photo: Catholic News Service/Rafael Marchante, Reuters)

ROME (Crux) – During his 28 apostolic trips outside of Italy, Pope Francis has never visited the Catholic powerhouse Spain. His upcoming visit to Morocco, however, will be dominated by Spaniards.

The population of the North African country is 99 percent Muslim, and of the estimated 40,000 Catholics, almost all are immigrants or the children of immigrants. The local Catholic hierarchy – from bishops to nuns – mostly comes from Spain, which is not surprising, given the two countries are only separated by seven miles.

This includes the three religious sisters who will be welcoming Pope Francis to an agricultural learning center on the outskirts of Rabat on Sunday. Members of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, they consider the 150 children they feed every day as members of their family.

These three sisters, who took over the center when a Jesuit community had to leave, spend over $3,500 a month in medicine alone, which they are able to afford thanks to the help of anonymous donors.

Speaking to the Spanish newsagency EFE, they shared that they treat up to 20 patients a day with burns: They are surrounded by people living in precarious conditions, cooking with coal, so kitchen accidents are common.

The chalice Pope Francis will use when he says Mass was restored at a jeweler in Ceuta, and some 500 people from the Spanish enclave are actually expected in Rabat for the papal liturgy.

(Ceuta and and Melilla are two Spanish enclaves on the Moroccan coast, the last remnants of the once-global Spanish empire. Both territories are claimed by Morocco.)

The man tapped to make sure that everything goes as planned on Sunday is also a Spaniard, who’s been living in Morocco since the early 2000s: Father Manuel Corullon. 

Speaking with Crux, the priest said that it’s important for Catholics in Morocco to feel they are part of a local church, one which walks with the people and is in cultural and religious dialogue with them, not a church that is only “passing by.”

For this reason, he said, the local Christian community welcomes the pope’s visit, as a sign that they too are relevant for the world, capable of saying something important and sharing a life experience of living in constant dialogue as a very small minority.

Archbishop Santiago Agrelo, from Galicia, has headed the Archdiocese of Tangier – one of two dioceses in Morocco – for the past 12 years, and he agrees with Father Corullon. Talking about the pope’s visit, he recently said he hopes the pope will be able to see the importance of the local church, that is small but not “insignificant,” as Christians have a very “significant presence within the Muslim world.”

He also said he hopes the pontiff will have the opportunity to get close to the reality of migration in Morocco. On the one hand, migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa have a very “lively contact with the Church and they represent an injection of youth to our communities.” 

However, he said there are also the “other” Catholics, those who have to remain hidden, because they’re not recognized or because they’re oppressed in many ways. Speaking with Alfa y Omega, he doesn’t name them, but he’s talking to those who converted from Islam to Christianity. The country is famously tolerant with foreigners who follow Christ, not so much when they’re locals.

When he was in Spain earlier this month for a conference organized by Vida Religiosa, Archbishop Agrelo spoke without reservation about the suffering caused by the migrant crisis in Morocco, with thousands travelling across Africa and through Morocco to Spain, most of them in rubber boats or literally using car tires as life preservers.

“I have thought about going into one of the boats with the [migrant] kids, with the illusion of thinking that, if a bishop dies in the Strait of Gibraltar, maybe something changes,” he said.

In the past few months, he’s had migrants sleeping in the atrium of the cathedral. He can’t allow them inside, because he would be accused of human trafficking.

“When I hear the cry of the immigrants who come to Europe, I dream of a church in which we can all sing victory, but before that day arrives … for that day to be possible, all the consecrated will need to descend to the deep, to the paths where lies abandoned, rejected, the Son of God, with the crucified ones of the earth.”

It’s with these migrants that Miguel Salinas works every day in the southern Spanish port city of Motril, a gateway into Europe for most of the migrants coming to the continent from Morocco. He’s a member of the Hermandad Obrera de Acción Católica [Working Brotherhood of Catholic Action], which has the support of the bishops’ conference.

Salinas spoke with Crux ahead of the pope’s visit to Morocco, and said he believes the visit of the pope is a “window, a door that opens to us who work in the world of migrants to amplify the knowledge of the lives of these people and the migrant reality, that will not end any time soon.”

“It’s a joy to know of the pope’s closeness to this country and to the reality of migrant people,” he said.

Salinas also said that he hopes the pope will shine a light on the urgency of opening humanitarian corridors that allow for the safe relocation of migrants, who have the right to emigrate, and who “shouldn’t risk their lives in order to survive.”

To invest in anything other than humanitarian corridors, such as walls, gates and fences to keep migrants out, Salinas argued, is to “invest in death because migration will not stop.”

State-run migration centers, he said, have collapsed in Motril, and this has led to the national security forces to literally “abandon groups of people in the streets.” 

It’s then, and only then, that the NGO he works for can take action. Until the corridors are open, Salinas argued, governments should be open to receiving the help of NGOs and civil society to address the crisis in a comprehensive way.

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