Saturday, March 13, 2010

Missionaries in Morocco

Morocco has suddenly begun expelling Christian missionaries whom it accuses of proselytizing:
"The largest incident took place at an orphanage for 33 abandoned children in the Middle Atlas mountains on Monday. Moroccan police showed up in the village of Ain Leuh, located 50 miles south of the ancient city of Fez, and separated orphans from their adoptive parents before delivering a grim piece of news: the Moroccan authorities had accused the volunteers of spreading Christianity – a crime in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation...

"But the expelled volunteers from Village of Hope orphanage insist they were operating within the law.

"'The fact of the matter is we weren’t proselytizing,' says Chris Broadbent, a New Zealander who managed the orphanage’s office until Monday, when he and his family fled to Spain. 'We understood the rules.'

"At the orphanage school, the children spoke Moroccan Arabic, studied the Koran, and learned Muslim prayers as stipulated by Moroccan law, Mr. Broadbent says. Outside of the classroom, it’s true Christians were raising the children in Christian households, but Broadbent says this was a fact about which no Moroccan official could pretend to be surprised."

Jillian York also has a round-up of reactions at Global Voices Online. Much discussion centers on whether the aid workers were teaching Christianity or evangelizing under the cover of charity work. My suspicion, however, is that the conflict comes from the ambiguity of such concepts in modern western Christianity.

Right now, I'm living in a very conservative, Christian area. Active involvement in religious organizations is the single biggest non-college commitment of Shippensburg University students. Many businesses have Christian music as their background motif, and discussion of religion is everywhere. Because of this, I meet a lot of people who are interested in missionary work, or at least hear about it and know what it is supposed to be.

Perhaps the best example of the point I want to get at came when I started discussing Spanish missionaries in the Americas at the end of World History I last semester. Shippensburg students often have very weak vocabularies, so at one point I asked the class to explain what "missionary" meant. The first answer I got was, "Someone who goes somewhere to show an example of Christian living." Specifically, this entails living for others by participating in the sorts of charity projects discusses in the Morocco pieces.

I meet a lot of college-aged and other young people who are interested in this kind of thing, or have done it themselves. To me, it seems clear that this form of missionary activity channels the same internationally focused idealism that joining the Peace Corps or those sorts of volunteer organizations does in more liberal areas. The impulses really are the same, people around here just tie it to religion because that's the culture in which they were raised.

The ambiguity in all this comes up in how this ties into other concepts of missionary activity, particularly the direct and unambiguous proselytizing most people think of when they hear the word. The fact is, in theory of going somewhere to represent a Christian way of life, however defined, is to attract others to Christianity by example. The degree to which this is actually on an individual's mind varies from case to case, of course, but it's definitely in the background of a lot of these projects.

You can see how this creates a gray area for laws against proselytizing. It gets even more complicated when people talk about their religion with others. But how does one legislate a line where active proselytizing blends into just being whatever you think a good Christian should be and then talking to people who are interested in the religion within which you're operating? The role of children in this is one thing, but at that point, you're close to building a theological Berlin Wall around your population to keep them within the fold rather than just trying to control the behavior of outsiders within your country.

I should say that, while running around trying to convert people to your religion doesn't seem like a great use of energy, I also don't think it should actually be illegal. However, given the motives and laws among various groups around the world are what they are, I suspect the ambiguities above are what lead to many of these conflicts.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Brian, when we had the Fulbrights in Tunisia and Ukraine in 1998-99, we met several Americans who were living or traveling under one guise, but were actually intending to function as missionaries; in Ukraine, there was actually a Fulbrighter who was proselytizing. In Tunisia, such action had to be completely "undercover". I never knew what visa status the family had,or what they thought "missionary" meant, but it's clear they were using the gray areas of Tunisian visa law to live in Sfax to convert Muslims to Christianity. -k

11:44 AM  

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