Rabat archbishop: With the Pope, we are 'Samaritans' taking care of migrants

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Rabat archbishop: With the Pope, we are 'Samaritans' taking care of migrants

By Cristina Uguccioni/ lastampa.it

As Francis’ trip to Morocco approaches, the expectations of the Catholic community and of the local people, the coexistence with Muslims, the future of inter-religious dialogue, the care of the poorest, in the interview with Cristobal Lopez Romero.

Accepting the invitation of King Mohammed VI and the local Church, Pope Francis will visit Morocco on 30 and 31 March. In the North African country the 37 million Moroccans are Sunni Muslims of the Malachite rite while Catholics represent a very small minority: 30,000 people who can count on about forty priests belonging to two dioceses: that of Tangier, the smallest, and that of Rabat, whose territory is larger than that of Italy (33 million people live there). Catholics are all foreigners and belong to about 100 different nationalities: a very large group is made up of young people from sub-Saharan countries who go to Morocco to study: for them the universities are free and they can also count on small Unesco scholarships. A second group, equally numerous, is made up of foreigners who work in diplomacy or in companies. Then there are the many migrants from sub-Saharan countries who try to reach the European coasts. In Rabat, the capital, Pope Francis will be welcomed by the archbishop of the city, the Salesian Cristobal Lopez Romero: a 66 year old Spaniard, who exercised his ministry in Paraguay, Spain, Bolivia and Morocco where, from 2003 to 2010, he was parish priest in Kenitra and directed the local Salesian school. On December 29, 2017 he was chosen to lead the diocese of Rabat. In this conversation with Vatican Insider Father Lopez reflects on the significance of this visit.

With what feelings does the Catholic community await Pope Francis? And do the Moroccan people seem to be interested in this visit?

“We Catholics look forward to Francis’ visit with open arms, full of joy: we wait for him to confirm us in faith, instill hope in our hearts and help us to love more deeply: faith, hope and charity are the gifts we desire. Catholics also hope that the Pope will encourage them to continue along this path with confidence and recognize that this Church - so beautiful in my eyes - is healthy, vital, important and necessary for this country. Among the Moroccans, who heard about this visit thanks to the news spread in recent weeks by the media, I gather curiosity and, among those who already know the Church, also contentment: there is in fact the conviction that the presence and gestures of the Pontiff can strengthen inter-religious dialogue, support moderate Islam and the good coexistence that binds Christians and Muslims in daily life”.

Can you offer a portrait of the Catholic Church in Morocco, which you have just described as “beautiful”? What are the beauties that characterize it, and the difficulties it has to face?

“With 30,000 Catholics coming from a hundred different countries, this Church - truly Catholic, universal - is beautiful precisely because of the diversity of experiences, traditions and ways of living the relationship with the Lord. At the same time, this diversity constitutes a difficulty because it is necessary to commit oneself to live in communion, to build unity starting from diversity. It is a Church that is also beautiful for it is young thus open to the future and full of dreams: the average age of Catholics is 35 (most are between 18 and 30). However, this is also a problem, since a great many of the faithful are university students who stay in the country for 4-5 years and then leave, replaced by others who arrive. From the pastoral point of view we must always start anew.

And then there is the ecumenical dimension: relations with the Protestants (about ten thousand faithful) and with the small communities of the Orthodox and Anglicans are excellent, we live in fraternity. We have set up the Ecumenical Council of Churches, we work together and we help each other: for example, we Catholics make some space available to the faithful of other confessions when necessary. We have also founded the ecumenical center Al Mowafaqa ("The Agreement"), which I preside over along with the woman pastor of the Protestant community of Rabat, in which Christian theology is studied and at the same time particular attention is paid to dialogue with Muslims and Islamology. However, the Pentecostals are not members of the Ecumenical Council of Churches: a wound for us for we would like all Christians to be able to bear witness together to the love of the Father, working together for the good of all, as Jesus asks. Last but not least, this Church is beautiful because she is Samaritan: with generosity and dedication she takes care of those who live in poverty and suffering. Unfortunately, if on the one hand being a small flock makes us a family, on the other hand it does not allow us to reach all those who are prostrate by the harshness of life: we Catholics are not in fact present in all cities”.

What kind of country will Pope Francis meet?

“Morocco, strongly anchored in its religious and cultural traditions, is a country that has already embarked on a path of modernization and can be defined as advanced in some areas (such as transport). Despite the significant efforts made by the government, however, there are still steps to be taken in the health and education fields: 25per cent of the population is still illiterate. Relations between Christians and Muslims in general are very good: Christians are respected and appreciated. We can freely profess our faith and work in peace”.

In your opinion, what factors are the main reasons for the good quality of relations between Christians and Muslims?

“It is thanks to Moroccan society, which has always been open and tolerant, to the Christians who spend themselves generously for the good of all - and not just recently (the Franciscan presence dates back to 800 years ago). It is also thanks to the highest authority of the country: the king, who in Morocco is also the highest religious authority because he has the title of "Commendatore dei credenti" and in this capacity he has the task of protecting Christians and Jews also: King Mohammed VI, with his behavior, honours this title”.

Although in Morocco there are no commissions specifically dedicated to inter-religious dialogue, dialogue with Muslims exists and is fruitful.

“That's right: there is the "dialogue of life", that is, proximity, the understanding that binds Christian and Muslim people in daily life. A second level of dialogue is represented by the many forms of collaboration born between Christians and Muslims, who work together for human rights, the promotion of women, education, health, the fight against child labor. There are also small groups of faithful who meet periodically to get to know each other and to deepen their Christian and Muslim vision of life. I think that the Pope's visit will give strong impetus to dialogue because the Moroccan people will be able to get to know the Pope and better understand the Catholic Church. But I think that, as happens every time Pope Francis makes a trip to a country with a Muslim majority, this visit will have repercussions throughout the world in terms of inter-religious dialogue. I am thinking for example of the recent visit to the United Arab Emirates and the Document on the Human Fraternity, a text that is beginning to be studied in many countries and represents a progress of enormous importance for the building of peace, the protection of the dignity of every human being and coexistence among peoples”.

On Saturday, March 30, the Pope will meet the migrants, whom you have been taking care of for some time with the Qantara program: how does the assistance you offer work?

“Assistance to migrants is the sector in which we are most involved if we consider the number of people assisted: over eight thousand each year. Of these, 75 per cent come from three countries: Camerum, Ivory Coast, Guinea Conakry. The multi-year programme Qantara (Bridge), for which we have allocated one and a half million euros a year, through the local Caritas (and thanks also to the support, among others, of the Italian Caritas) assists migrants thanks to the generous commitment of doctors, psychologists, educators, teachers, cultural mediators: we ensure medical and psychological assistance, school education for minors, professional training, integration into the world of work.

In Morocco, the government is also trying to do its part: all migrants who come here have the right to basic health care and children are guaranteed school education. Moreover, many - 50,000 only recently - have been regularized. In my opinion, the meeting of Pope Francis with migrants is a clear and unequivocal message addressed not only to the Moroccan people but to the whole Church, to those Catholics in Italy, Spain and Europe who oppose, even strongly, the presence of migrants in their territory and who are unable to recognize them as brothers and sisters. For years the Pope - not only with words, but with clear gestures - has invited the faithful to keep their hearts open, not to close them in indifference and rancor. At the same time he urges commitment to try to change the current economic system, the cause of painful iniquities, so that everyone can live in dignity in their own country or can - by exercising a legitimate right - emigrate safely if they so wish”.

You have defined the Moroccan Church as “samaritan”: along with migrants, whom else do you care of?

“We assist the poorest Moroccan families, we organize activities for the promotion of women, we run schools and training centers, small hospitals and dispensaries. The rural centre for social services in Témara (on the outskirts of Rabat), which Pope Francis will visit on 31 March, is a paradigm of our commitment. This centre was founded by the Jesuits, who then handed over the agricultural school to the state and entrusted the management of the other services to the Sisters Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent De Paul: There is a dispensary that offers assistance to severely burned people and to the destitute psychiatric patients who are unable to buy the necessary medicines, a nursery that welcomes fifty children, an after-school space where eighty children study every day and a canteen that provides a hot meal for these children, all from poor families. The sisters also take loving care of mothers who are in serious financial difficulties by organizing courses in sewing, vocational training and social promotion”.

Fri, 03/29/2019 - 12:32
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