Morocco has deported at least 20 foreign Christians who it says were breaking the law by trying to convert Moroccan children. Expulsions are expected to continue.
Sixteen Christian aid workers from New Zealand were expelled because Morocco's Interior Ministry says they were using the Village of Hope orphanage in Fez to convert Moroccan children to Christianity under the guise of charity.
Christian groups are allowed to operate in Morocco so long as they do not try to convert Muslims, who make up 98 percent of the kingdom's population.
"As we drove into work there were police everywhere, roadblocks outside," said Chris Broadbent, personnel director at the orphanage.
Broadbent says what first appeared to be a routine paperwork check quickly turned to deportation. In a telephone interview from Spain, he says Moroccan authorities asked children at the orphanage if they could recite the Koran while police searched the facility for Christian literature.
"They were looking for any Christian-type material that the children might have been exposed to, like children's bible stories, anything related to Christian literature for children," he said.
Broadbent says police found children's bible stories at the orphanage, but he denies the group was acting as missionaries, saying they did not force people to change their beliefs. He says children at the orphanage were taught Arabic and the Koran.
Moroccan authorities say there were responding to complaints by people who live near the orphanage who said Christians were targeting children under age 10, and according to the Interior Ministry "exploiting some families' poverty" to proselytize.
Morocco's Communication Minister Khalid Naciri says the deportations are about disrespecting Moroccan law, not about religion.
Naciri says this is not an act against Christians. It is an act against people who are breaking the law. Naciri says Moroccan law deals severely with anyone who violates rules protecting religious behavior, and the government is equally severe with Muslim extremists.
Dutch, British, and American Christian aid workers have also been expelled from Morocco in the past week.
U.S. Embassy spokesman David Ranz says the government has identified several other Americans for deportation, and the embassy has been told additional people will be expelled, though he declined to give specific names or numbers.
Pastors in several cities say they believe this is a coordinated campaign to purge the country of evangelists who have been tolerated there for decades.
Jack Wald has been the pastor of the protestant Rabat International Church for 10 years. He says the last week has been like going to sleep and waking up in a different country.
Jean-Luc Blanc, who heads Casablanca's Evangelical Church of Morocco, says these expulsions are unusual for the Moroccan government. If they want to expel all the missionaries who are working clandestinely in Morocco, he says they will have to expel hundreds of people.
In the past, Blanc says the government would expel one or two missionaries a year. But this time, it has been a large group all at once. And he believes there will be more.