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Menachem Rosensaft

Menachem Rosensaft

Posted: June 30, 2010 07:23 AM

I take no position on whether countries should prohibit religious proselytizing. Over the centuries, Jews, especially Jewish children, have far too often been the victims of proselytization. During the years of the Holocaust, desperate Jewish parents in Poland smuggled their children out of the ghetto for safekeeping by Christians only to discover after the war -- I am speaking, of course, of those who were fortunate enough to survive the death camps -- that the children had been baptized and indoctrinated to reject their Jewish faith and identity.

I am far more concerned, therefore, with the presence or absence of the freedom of different faith groups to worship according to their respective beliefs.

The Kingdom of Morocco is a Muslim nation where Jews and Christian are able to practice their religions openly. Synagogues and churches stand alongside mosques, and the Moroccan government is a rare beacon of tolerance in an otherwise mostly religiously xenophobic Muslim world. Both King Muhammed VI and his late father, King Hassan, have publicly placed the Moroccan Jewish community under royal protection. As Rabbi Marc Schneier, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, reminds us, "during World War II, when Morocco was ruled by the anti-Semitic Vichy government, King Muhammed V prevented the deportation of Jews from Morocco." Moroccan law simultaneously guarantees freedom of religion and criminalizes proselytization. Morocco has also been a stalwart ally of the United States and the West.

Anti-proselytizing laws are common in Muslim countries. Proselytizing is illegal in Afghanistan, as is conversion from Islam. Earlier this year, a Christian shopkeeper in Pakistan was sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly desecrating the Qur'an. Last year, nine Christians were arrested in Malaysia for attempting to convert some Muslim students at a university near the capital of Kuala Lumpur. In Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. State Department's 2009 International Freedom Report, "Conversion by Muslims to another religion (apostasy) and proselytizing by non-Muslims are punishable by death under the Islamic laws adopted by the country, but there have been no confirmed reports of executions for either crime in recent years."

In 2006, according to the Catholic AsiaNews.it, A Catholic Indian priest was expelled from Saudi Arabia after he "was discovered by the religious police as he organized a prayer meeting in the lead-up to Easter. . . . On 5 April, Fr George had just celebrated mass in a private house when seven religious policemen (muttawa) broke into the house together with two ordinary policemen. The police arrested the priest and another person. The Saudi religious police are well known for their ruthlessness; they often torture believers of other religions who are arrested."

It is in this context that one must consider the Moroccan government's essentially benign expulsion earlier this year of five American Christians accused of proselytizing at a Moroccan orphanage. The Moroccan Penal Code specifically prohibits the "seduction in the aim of undermining a Muslim's faith or of converting him/her to another religion, either by exploiting his weaknesses or needs, or through the use, to this end, of health or educational establishments, as well as shelters or orphanages."

A group of Republican members of Congress have taken up the cause of the expelled Christian missionaries, which is, of course, their right. Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Anh Cao (R-La.) recently convened a hearing at which they urged Morocco to allow the deportees to return.

At the hearing, some of the rhetoric turned ugly. Rep. Wolf called for the suspension of U.S. foreign aid to Morocco and compared the Moroccan government to the repressive Ceaucescu regime in Romania during the 1980's. Rep. Pitts went further and likened the measures taken by the Moroccan authorities to "some of the tactics used by the Nazis."

These comparisons are over the top and betray either an ignorance or a disregard of history. Non-Muslims enjoy far greater freedom of religion in Morocco than in most other Muslim countries, and Americans who go there are fully aware that proselytizing is prohibited. There are no allegations that the Americans involved were tortured or physically mistreated. They were simply expelled from Morocco for refusing to abide by its laws.

As His Excellency, Aziz Mekouar, Morocco's Ambassador to the United States, emphasized, "The repatriation measures were taken against the concerned parties not because of their Christian faith but because they committed criminal offenses, proven by an investigation conducted by the Crown Prosecution Office, following formal complaints by parents and close relatives of the children concerned."

Once again, we should all refrain from making Nazi or Cold War analogies for rhetorical effect. The above-cited comments by Reps. Wolf and Pitts were as unfortunate and out of place as Newt Gingrich's recent claim that the Obama administration's policies represent "as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did."

Someone should remind Reps. Wolf and Pitts that our government regularly deports foreign nationals who are deemed to have violated U.S. laws.

Representative Pitts' comments are also in stark contrast with his praise for far more repressive Muslim countries. Back in 2004, he commended Saudi Arabia for "working closely with the U.S. to root out al-Qaeda" and Pakistani forces for "rounding up terrorists on their border."

In fairness, it should be noted that earlier this year, Reps. Wolf, Pitts, Frank, Smith and Cao appealed to the President of Uganda to reject legislation that subjects homosexuals to life imprisonment.

Proselytizing is a complex issue which deserves serious consideration. In December 2009, for example, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sheriff was constitutionally prohibited from proselytizing his fundamentalist Christian beliefs to his deputies at official staff meetings. Sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr. had brought members of the Fellowship of Christian Centurions to address his deputies, and indicated that he would base promotions on the whether or not the candidates were "people of faith." Specifically, the Court held that Clarke's proselytizing had violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

I assume that Reps. Wolf and Pitts would not compare the 7th Circuit ruling to Nazi or Communist oppression, however much they might disagree with it. They and others who take up the cause of the American missionaries who were expelled from Morocco would be well advised to similarly refrain from introducing such inappropriate analogies into a dispute with a valued ally.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at the Syracuse University College of Law, and Vice President of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.