BosNewsLife Africa Service
RABAT,MOROCCO (BosNewsLife)-- Christian converts in Morocco feared for their future Thursday, April 25, after the country's highest Islamic institute issued a fatwa demanding the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their religion.
The Supreme Ulema Council of Morocco (CSO), a body of Islamic scholars headed by King Mohammed VI, said that Muslims who reject their faith "should be condemned to death." CSO is the only institution entitled to issue 'fatwas', or religious decrees, in Morocco.
The ministry of Islamic affairs declined to comment on the issue.
The fatwa dates back to April 2012 when a legal report was prepared by the government, but it wasn't published at the time, according to local media.
Mahjoub El Hiba, a senior human rights official in the Moroccan government, denied to reporters that the government received a fatwa on "apostasy" -- the word used for abandoning Islam -- as the Arabic-language daily Akhbar al-Youm had claimed.
The different statements could not be immediately reconciled, but local Christians expressed concern about the situation, saying it could lead to a new crackdown on the country's tiny Christian community of some 22,000 people.
"There's a lot of confusion and discussion in Morocco right now about the fatwa," said a pastor near the city of Marrakech in a statement distributed by advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC). "We fear that if the fatwa is approved, the government will use it to harass us and even arrest us during our meetings," the church leader added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The [Islamic] fundamentalists will have an excuse to harm us," the pastor reportedly said.
ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East, Aidan Clay, agrees that the fatwa adds to concern about the position of Christians in the Islamic nation of over 32 million people. "
"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," he told BosNewsLife.
In total, Morocco expelled as many as 100 foreign Christians since 2010, because they allegedly tried to convert Muslims, according to BosNewsLife estimates.
Islamic extremism is the main "source of persecution" in Morocco, said Christian advocacy group Open Doors.
Among those already detained is 49-year-old Jamaa Ait Bakrim, an outspoken Christian convert, who was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in 2005 for "proselytizing" and destroying "the goods of others" after burning two defunct utility poles located in front of his own business in south Morocco.
Open Doors quoted activists and Moroccan Christians as saying that the severity of his sentence for a "misdemeanor" underscores Morocco's attempt him behind bars as long as possible "because he persistently spoke about his faith."
While apostasy is illegal in many Muslim countries and punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, Moroccan law so far does not directly prohibit it, according to experts familiar with the legislation.
Article 220 of Morocco's Penal Code does state, however, that "attempting to undermine the faith of a Muslim or convert him to another religion" is punishable with six months to three years in prison. It was not immediately clear when and if the reported fatwa issuing a death sentence will become part of new legislation.
"We urge the Moroccan government to safeguard the religious freedoms of all Moroccans and to reject edicts that would constitute a breach of the country's international human rights obligations," Clay said.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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