“Christian minority groups” in the disputed Western Sahara territory cite “fear of societal harassment” for why they “practice their faith discreetly,” echoing the experiences of minority religious groups in Morocco.
Morocco claims sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory, and “administers the area it controls by the same constitution, laws, and structures as elsewhere in the country,” states a U.S. report on International Religious Freedom in Morocco published on Wednesday.
Although the Moroccan constitution “prohibits political parties founded on religion,” both it and other laws heavily favor the preeminence of Islam.
For example, “criticism of Islam” is illegal, as are “enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion”.
In a country where “more than” 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim – the remaining 1 percent is made up of Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Baha’is – the constitution grants Moroccan King Mohammed VI the title of “protector of Islam”.
He is also the “guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs.”
And while the King has taken some measures to promote religious tolerance, such as founding a Jewish cultural museum in Essaouira and “statements” made when Pope Francis visited in 2019, some people of minority faiths in Morocco and Western Sahara say they don’t feel safe practicing their religion.
“Representatives of minority religious groups [in Morocco] said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by ‘extremists,’ were the main reasons leading them to practice their faith discretely,” the U.S. report says.
In Western Sahara, “representatives of Christian minority groups” voiced the same reasons, though they did not cite the threat of extremist violence or employment discrimination.
In 2020, U.S. officials engaged with the Moroccan government “to promote religious freedom and tolerance, including the rights of minority communities.”
U.S. Embassy and consulate general representatives also held “regular meetings and discussions with members of religious minority and majority communities throughout [Morocco]” – they were reportedly unable to meet with “members of religious groups” in Western Sahara, citing Covid-19 restrictions.
The Biden administration, as stated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday, considers religious freedom to be a human right.
In May 2020, Rafik Boubker, a Moroccan actor, was arrested for making ‘blasphemous remarks against Islam’ in a social media post. He faces between six months to two years in prison and a possible fine, according to the report. Although released on bail, the trial date is still unknown after being postponed in July.