ROME - Pope Francis is in Morocco as part of his ongoing effort to advance inter-religious dialogue. It is the first visit by a pope to the predominantly Muslim country in 34 years. Just last month the pope visited the predominantly Muslim United Arab Emirates.
Pope John Paul II was the last head of the Catholic Church to visit Morocco in August 1985. Moroccans are seeing the current visit in a positive way and the message that Pope Francis has for them is that Muslims and Christians can peacefully co-exist.
Ahead of the two-day visit, Pope Francis issued a video message for the Moroccan people. He thanked King Mohammed VI for inviting him and Moroccan authorities for their collaboration in making this visit possible.
Francis said that, following in the footsteps of his holy predecessor, John Paul II, he is coming as a pilgrim of peace and brotherhood, in a world that greatly needs it. Francis added that both Christians and Muslims believe in God “who created men and women, and placed them in the world so that they might live as brothers and sisters, respecting each other’s diversity and helping each other in their needs.”
Morocco’s population is almost all Muslim, with the local Catholic community consisting of some 23,000 faithful. The majority of them are immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The pope will spend only 27 hours in Morocco but he has a busy schedule. On his first day in Rabat, the pope focuses on inter-faith dialogue and on solidarity with migrants.
He will be visiting the Mohammed VI Institute for the training of imams in what is expected to be a significant moment of his visit. It is the first time a pope is welcomed in a school for imams. This is part of the Moroccan king’s effort against fundamentalism while promoting a moderate approach to Islam.
On Saturday, Pope Francis also will be meeting with migrants at a center run by the Catholic charity Caritas. There are some 50,000 migrants in Morocco and about 4,000 are looked after by Caritas. The issue of migrants is an important one, as Morocco’s proximity to Spain has led many migrants to travel this route to enter Europe.
On Sunday, Pope Francis will visit the Center for Social Services at Temara, just south of Rabat, which used to be a rural school run by Jesuits and is now an important care center for children. The pope will then hold a meeting with religious men and women in Rabat cathedral and lunch with the country’s bishops.
Before returning to the Vatican, Pope Francis will celebrate mass at the city’s Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium. The mass is expected to be attended by at least half the Catholic population in the country.