RABAT, Morocco — For 10 years, foreign Christians ran an orphanage called Village of Hope on the slopes of Morocco’s Middle Atlas Mountains, taking in abandoned Moroccan children and raising them in their homes.
But it took just a few hours Monday evening for Moroccan authorities to dissolve those foster families. Police gathered the 16 foreign volunteers and their biological children in a conference room and told them they had to leave the country immediately. Across the parking lot, 33 Moroccan children learned they would stay behind.
“It will be burned in my memory forever,” said Chris Broadbent, a New Zealander who worked as an administrator at the orphanage. “These kids just screamed across the car park to their parents to ask them if it was true. It was just chaos and so distressing, so terrible. I’ve never seen or experienced anything like it.”
Broadbent said Moroccan authorities took over the Village of Hope facility on Monday, but it is not yet clear whether the children will stay there or be sent somewhere else.
Morocco’s Interior Ministry claims the group “exploited some families' poverty and targeted their minor children,” violating rules on guardianship and breaking Morocco’s laws against proselytizing to Muslims.
Foreign Christian leaders in Morocco say the deportations are part of a country-wide campaign that signals a tough new stance against foreign evangelists who had been tolerated here for years.
Broadbent said the staff never tried to convert anyone, and maintained the orphanage had followed the same policies since it opened a decade ago: The children learned the Quran in school, but were raised by Christian parents.
“We were we looking after them, because nobody else would,” Broadbent said. “For 10 years they have openly, knowingly allowed us to do that and they never said we were breaking the law.”
They are not the only foreign evangelists to suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the Moroccan government. A western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities placed several dozen or more on a list for deportation.
In addition to orphanage volunteers approximately 10 other foreign Christians accused of proselytizing were deported over the weekend from cities across the country, pastors and Christian aid groups said.
Those expelled come from the Netherlands, Britain, the Congo, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil and the United States.
“We were disheartened and distressed to learn of the recent expulsion by the Moroccan Government of a number of foreigners, including numerous Americans, who had been legally residing in Morocco,” U.S. Ambassador Samuel Kaplan said in a statement. “While we expect all American citizens in Morocco to respect Moroccan law, we hope to see meaningful improvements in the application of due process in such cases.”
U.S. embassy officials declined to confirm who or how many people would be expelled but said the number is likely to rise. Pastors who have lived in Morocco for years say the sheer quantity of deportations is unprecedented in recent years.
“It’s like going to sleep and waking up and all of the sudden you’re in a different country,” said Jack Wald, who has spent 10 years as pastor of Rabat International Church, a protestant congregation in the capital. “This is a change in policy from the top of the government.”
“In my nine years in Morocco, never,” said Pastor Jean-Luc Blanc, authorized by the government to preach to foreigners at the Evangelical Church of Morocco. “Each year there are one or two expulsions like this, but never so many at one time.”
But Moroccan Communication Minister Khalid Naciri maintains that the expulsions are neither new, nor limited to Christian missionaries.
“The Moroccan government today deals harshly with whoever allows themselves to manipulate the religion of the people,” Naciri said. He cited government crackdowns on radical Islamist groups and expulsions of Shi’a Muslims proselytizing in this largely Sunni country.
Still, many in the expatriate Christian community here are wondering who’s next. Police have interviewed children at another older orphanage, also run by Christian evangelists, a few miles from The Village of Hope.
“They asked 'Do you know the Quran?' and they quoted the Quran to them,” said Jim Pitts, a native Virginian, has worked at the orphanage for 51 years.
Pitts says his staff members have come only to do charitable work and have never tried to convert anyone. But he’s still unsure what the authorities will do.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with us,” he said. “We’ll see.”