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Friday, 23 April 2010 11:45

U.S. diplomat protests Morocco's expulsion of American Christians

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Submitted by SHNS on Tue, 04/06/2010 - 13:11
Minneapolis Star Tribune

WASHINGTON - Minneapolis attorney Sam Kaplan had been on the job as U.S. ambassador to Morocco less than six months when the government there expelled a group of Christian aid workers accused of proselytizing in foreign-run orphanages.

"Jarring is the word," said Kaplan, recounting the episode in March that has put him at the center of a brewing international controversy. "When they chose to expel 50 Americans at one time, it was a jarring ... experience."

Proselytizing, or encouraging someone to convert to another religion, is strictly forbidden in the overwhelmingly Muslim country. Some of the aid workers were rounded up and quickly deported, leaving behind wrenching scenes of dazed and crying children.

The images have been carried around the world over the Internet, largely through Christian aid groups. Meanwhile, Western governments have monitored the situation closely because Morocco, one of the most liberal nations in the Arab world, is regarded as a diplomatic listening post in the Middle East.

Kaplan, one of a handful of Jewish diplomats representing the United States in Arab nations, has spoken out for the "due process" rights of the aid workers, a position that he says has not endeared him to a local Arab press that had been largely welcoming until last month.

"When your press has been almost unanimously positive for 5 1/2 months, the change is something that is different," said Kaplan, a longtime Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party fundraiser and Obama campaign contributor.

Kaplan also has felt the squeeze from some international aid groups who say the American response has been too tepid.

"We want to see action," said Salim Sefiane, a Moroccan immigrant in Chicago who grew up in Children's Haven, one of the Christian orphanages targeted in last month's raids. "We don't think the American government has taken a very forceful stance."

Sefiane, who remains in touch with the aid groups in Morocco, recounted the interrogation of children as young as 8 by Moroccan police. "They asked one girl if she knew how to do Islamic prayer," he said. "That's pretty intimidating."

Sefiane disputes the accusation that religious groups are taking advantage of Moroccan poverty to convert orphaned and abandoned children to Christianity. "They just raise us like their own," he said.

The expulsions were conducted just as Kaplan was preparing his embassy's annual human rights report on Morocco, a document that had to be revised at the last minute to take into account the ongoing developments.

Morocco has a long tradition of tolerance and permits freedom of worship to Jews and Christians, though the latter are largely foreign. But attempts to convert Muslims to other religions are strictly prohibited.

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