MEKNES, Morocco — On a Monday evening in a ground-floor apartment shielded from the street by heavy yellow curtains, five people stood around a table in the living room as a woman read from a pink leather-bound Bible in Arabic.
Holding hands, they prayed and read psalms, as a mandolin player accompanied their chants and a 2-year-old girl hit a ball playfully against the pink walls.
They would prefer to worship in a church, but as Moroccans and former Muslims who converted to Christianity, they are compelled to hide their activities from public sight.
Morocco, where Pope Francis will arrive on Saturday for a visit, is widely perceived to be an unusually tolerant Muslim country. And to a certain extent, it is.
It is the only Arab country that constitutionally guarantees recognition of its Jewish population, granting it separate laws and courts to regulate matters related to family law. It also regularly organizes events to promote interfaith dialogue and has ratified international treaties guaranteeing religious freedom. The foreign-born, largely Westerners and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, can worship openly.
Moroccans, 99 percent of them Sunni Muslims, cannot freely express atheistic beliefs or conversion to another faith. Criticizing Islam remains extremely sensitive, and worship for indigenous Christians, who number somewhere between 2,000 and 50,000, is problematic, particularly for those who converted from Islam.
Moroccan Christians have long been ostracized, sometimes rejected by society and closely scrutinized by the state. They are not officially banned from churches. But to practice their faith openly is to invite harassment and threats, even — or especially — from relatives.
While almost no one is being arrested because of their beliefs these days, most feel constrained from freely attending churches and publicly performing rituals like baptisms, weddings and funerals in accordance with their beliefs. But priests and pastors face possible accusations of proselytizing, a crime in Morocco, simply by having Moroccans attend Mass.
Voluntary conversion, while stigmatized, is not technically illegal. Evangelism is. Morocco has expelled dozens of foreigners suspected of proselytizing, or “shaking the faith of a Muslim.” In 2010, the Village of Hope orphanage in the Middle Atlas Mountains was shut down on suspicion that it was teaching Christianity to the children.
Attention to the plight of Morocco’s Christian converts is getting some traction ahead of Pope Francis’ arrival, as they seize the opportunity to advocate greater freedom to worship.
“We believe that any interreligious dialogue and any fight against extremism can succeed only on the basis of a total frankness on the issue of religious freedom for Moroccan citizens, including Christian Moroccans,” said a statement by the Coordination of Moroccan Christians, a local advocacy group. “We hope that the visit of the Holy Father will be a historic opportunity to move our country forward in this direction.”
The group that meets behind curtains in Meknes wants not only to worship in broad daylight, but to do so in the places of their choosing.
“I want to name my daughter Easter and my son Joshua,” said Zouhair H., 37, a Casablanca resident and the son of an imam who stole his older brother’s Bible when he was a teenager and eventually converted. “We have our own Moroccan rites. I have no interest in praying in another language or other programs. In my own country, I don’t want to be a guest in a church” run by foreigners.
Zouhair, who has no children yet, would give only his first name for fear of harassment.
Aomar Boum, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said there were virtually no Moroccan Christians until a century ago — around 100 in 1933, among 106,000 or so European Catholic settlers.
Churches built all over the country during the French Protectorate, from 1912 to 1956, fell into disuse after Morocco’s independence. In recent years, these houses of worship have been revived by Christian immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, with Moroccan converts still confined to their homes.
“Moroccans generally associated Christians with colonization, so it was very hard for Moroccans to be intrigued by the religion, and illiteracy can be added as a factor,” Mr. Boum said. Not to speak of resentment over European imperialism.
Radio, television and, later, missionary shows on the internet have contributed in part to making Christianity more accessible.
“Online networks like this have really transformed the movement, largely because it highlights stories of individuals who went through the experience and at the same time stress their Moroccanness,” he said.
For many, like Mohamed Said, 41, it has also been a personal spiritual journey. Growing up in a religiously conservative Muslim family, he became interested in Christianity after listening to a radio show about it. After years of studies, debates and encounters with other Christians, he was baptized in a ceremony in a villa in a residential neighborhood of Casablanca in 2000.
The government has made noises about religious freedom, and in 2016 hundreds of religious scholars from numerous countries produced the Marrakesh Declaration, a bill of rights intended to protect minority groups. But Mr. Said dismissed that as posturing for the international community.
“The political system is hypocritical and fearful,” he said. “There is a legal issue. People who speak publicly are exceptions. I want to get married the way I want, and pray the way I want, as a Moroccan citizen.”
“The U.S. State Department report contains erroneous allegations and judgments that are not based on scientific data,” he said.
Part of the hostility to Christian converts is the threat they implicitly pose to the King Mohammed VI, a revered symbol of the country but also the absolute religious authority, said Abdeslam Maghraoui, a North Africa analyst at Duke University. The king holds the title of commander of the faithful, and the crown reinforces its power by suppressing expressions of a rival religious identity.
“The Ministry of Religious Affairs disseminates religious materials and monitors mosques, radio religious programs and sermons to project one uniform version of Islam,” Mr. Maghraoui said. “By acting as the arbitrator of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, the ministry is monopolizing the religious field and manufacturing its own version of ‘religious pluralism.’”
Many Christians are hoping that Pope Francis’s visit can catalyze change in the direction of greater protection for religious minorities, but that may be asking too much.
The most senior Catholic in Morocco, Archbishop Cristóbal López Romero of Rabat, the capital, said in an emailed statement that he thought it was unlikely that the pope would respond to any calls for help.
“He does not have to come to Morocco to deal with cases that concern the Moroccan people and their authorities,” he said.
Rev. Karen Smith, the president of the Protestant Church in Morocco said that she is grateful for the liberty that she and her foreign congregations benefit from.
“We do indeed encounter Moroccan Christians who reach out to us fraternally. We understand the social and political sensitivity of their situation, both for them and for Moroccan authorities,” she said. “We pray with and for Morocco and His Majesty King Mohammed VI as the country considers such questions which are so important for the future.”
Despite the continuing pressures they face, some Moroccan Christians see glimmers of hope. Zouhair H. said that, despite everything, his community has been more vocal in recent years without suffering consequences.
“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to give this interview,” he said.
Back in Meknes, the ceremony ends at around 10:30 p.m. with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. And, finally, one last prayer. Not for themselves, but for Pope Francis to hear them and plead their cause.