Morocco: Franciscan presence in dialogue and support for migrants

A Church that can dialogue with the local people and take care of the Christian minority of migrants: this is the call to which the friars working in Morocco have responded. A crossroads of peoples and a key junction for the route of migrants who want to reach Europe from various places, Morocco today is also a landing place for young students from all over Africa and workers from Southeast Asia. Franciscan friars have been working there for 800 years, since the time of St Francis when, in the early winter of 1219, five friars arrived in Marrakech on a mission, which ended in their martyrdom. Today there is an international community of 21 friars from 12 countries, distributed in six fraternities in Rabat, Marrakech, Meknes, Larache, Tétouan and Tangier. This was recounted by Br Stéphane Delavelle, elected last April to lead Morocco’s Custody of the Protomartyrs. The other friars present come from Brazil, the Philippines, Spain, Congo, Poland, Italy, France, the Philippines, Mexico, Costa Rica, Croatia and Colombia and are engaged daily on different fronts in the service of the people. They accompany four parishes and three cultural centres, participate in the animation of Caritas, visit prisons and animate several chaplaincies. They also support the Poor Clare Monastery in Casablanca, affiliated to the Order of Friars Minor as of 16 May 2019.

Br Stéphane has lived in Morocco for ten years. “Besides prayer and fraternal life, what we do here is a dialogue that takes place daily in our lives,” he says. “Ninety-nine per cent of the population is Muslim, there are about 4,000 Jews and only 39,000 Christians. That means we are only 0.1 per cent of the population”. The Franciscans thus try to get in touch with the Muslim population through cultural centres, which are places of formation and meeting, rather than universities. The success of these almost entirely free training centres is testified by the numbers, as Br Stéphane says: “Before Covid, in one of the centres we had 1900 students, 40 professors and only 106 chairs”.

The Franciscans are also involved in animating the parishes, which have about 250 parishioners every Sunday. “The parishioners are all young; the majority are students who come from African countries,” says the friar. “The future of Africa is here. For them, who have lost all bearings and are far from home, the church is like an island in the middle of the ocean”. They come from Africa, the Pacific Islands, and Haiti; they benefit from scholarships and meet with temporary workers from Europe, the United States or even the Philippines.

In Marrakech, the friars of the parish are engaged in pastoral work for tourists, students, and migrant workers. In Rabat, on the other hand, pastoral care must reach mainly English-speaking faithful who are Filipino or Nigerian workers. Spanish is also widely used, especially for the pastoral care of those in prisons whom the friars visit. In Meknes, the Franciscan community, located in the city centre, takes care of a training centre with about 1,800 students. In addition, a small fraternity of two friars maintains the Franciscan presence in Larache, near the sea. Finally, in Tangier, the friars serve two churches with Spanish-speaking faithful and the ten communities of sisters there.

“The humanitarian aid we offer is often emergency aid,” says Br Stéphane, “There are many minors who transit through Morocco with the hope of being able to go elsewhere. But unfortunately, it often happens that, a few months after their arrival and having finally decided to start a new life or education, they suddenly decide to leave. If they feel there is a real possibility of crossing the border and arriving in Europe, they leave everything and go. For them, the only prospect is to cross to the other side”. After all, Morocco is a transit country, but for many, an extreme attempt to reach Europe can be fatal. “Many die at sea,” the friar continues. “There is no longer room in Christian cemeteries for the bodies of the dead, and it is difficult for everyone to witness this situation”. The friars, for their part, try to continue to live among the people and stand by them even in difficult moments. “In Meknes, for example, our friary is in a small street in the medina. We live with very little, and people see that we live with them, like them”.

The strong bonds created with people go beyond differences and religions when we allow ourselves the space to be challenged by the faith of others. “In my own personal journey, I have found that I can learn from others,” explains Br Stéphane. “It is important to allow oneself to be changed by the faith of the other, and it is a form of deep friendship to take an example from the faith of the other”.

Being a missionary in a country with a Muslim majority is a vocation that also requires a readiness to offer oneself for the needs that arise daily. “We need mature friars, who bear witness to the faith with their lives and are willing to learn French, Spanish and Arabic,” continues Br Stéphane. “We must get into the mindset that the things we believe must become existential. Here we must not think about being efficient or effective, but we must know how to live in small communities that maintain a Christian presence. I like to see this as an ongoing challenge. Here in Morocco, we will certainly not find recognition for what we do, and we will not see the results of our actions in the people who leave suddenly and never return. That is why staying is difficult if you do not have hope. We are part of an international fraternity, and I am very happy about that”.

Beatrice Guarrera