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MOROCCO: Christians deported, accused of proselytizing to orphaned children

March 16, 2010 |  6:47 am


Their crime, Herman Boonstra said, was letting the kids read from a children’s Bible. “Stories of Noah and the ark and Jonas and the whale. Stories which appear in the Koran as well.”

Last week, Boonstra, of the Netherlands, and 15 other foreign nationals at the Village of Hope orphanage in Ain Leuh, a town in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains, were deported by Moroccan authorities for proselytizing. Elsewhere in Morocco, more Christians were deported or put on a list for deportation, including a “significant” number of Americans, the U.S. Embassy reported.

On Friday, Boonstra and others from the Village of Hope issued an appeal to the Moroccan king on their website, asking him "to act with mercy and help us reach a point of compromise and reunite the 33 children with the only parents they know."

Herman and Jellie Boonstra consider the eight Moroccan children they had taken in as their own. At Village of Hope, children were placed in family units, with a man and woman, rather than dormitory-style accommodations. The orphanage was home to 33 children in all, mostly abandoned by women who had become pregnant out of wedlock.

“They were our children. Now suddenly they aren’t anymore,” an emotional Boonstra told Babylon & Beyond by phone from Spain.

The proposition was risky to begin with: Adoption is technically illegal in many Muslim countries. Something resembling it is allowed, a practice called kafala in Arabic, but Christians are not eligible.

On the other hand, Village of Hope had just been officially recognized as a children’s care facility early this year, which made the deportation an even bigger surprise, Boonstra said. “We have always tried to be clear. They knew exactly who we were, and they have not interfered with us one bit for 10 years. Now, suddenly they are treating us like criminals."

Responding to the criticism, the Moroccan minister of communication, Khalid Naciri, said on Thursday that Morocco would “continue to take stern action against anyone who toys with the religious values” of the country. 

According to Naciri, Christians are free to practice their religion in Morocco but proselytising will not be tolerated.

The Moroccan constitution guarantees religious freedom, but Islam is the official state religion, and converting people to another religion is punishable under the law.

Morocco's justice minister said earlier that the deported foreigners had exploited the poverty of a number of Moroccan families to convert their minor children to Christianity. The official Catholic and evangelical churches of Morocco, in a joint statement, distanced themselves from the deported Christians. 

But according to Jack Wald III, an American preacher with the protestant Rabat International Church, the recent deportations constitute a sea change in the situation of Christians in Morocco.

"I feel like I have waken up to a new reality," Wald, who was chairman of the board at Village of Hope for nine years, told Babylon & Beyond in Rabat. 

Deportations of Christians for proselytizing are fairly common in Morocco, "but this is different. This seems to be a coordinated effort, and it seems to signal a policy shift in the government," Wald said.

“The way it was done has been traumatizing for the children: They have been abandoned a second time,” said Wald. “It was a shameful act on the part of the Moroccan authorities. What they're saying is that the perceived threat from Christianity trumps the welfare of these children."

Herman Boonstra maintains that he never intended to convert the children in his care. “Of course they are more familiar with Christianity since they grew up with us," he said, "but they got Koran lessons all the same."

The Boonstras and the other parents plan to hold a press conference in Gibraltar, Spain. Meanwhile, the children at the Village of Hope have been placed in the care of official Moroccan child-care workers. All the non-Muslim staff at the orphanage have been let go.

-- Gert van Langendonck in Rabat, Morocco

Photo: Herman and Jellie Boonstra with orphans at the Village of Hope. Credit: Village of Hope website