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Religious freedom is about human dignity, pope says in Morocco

Pope Francis (2nd-L) is received by Morocco's King Mohammed VI (2nd-R), his son Crown Prince Moulay Hassan (R), and brother Moulay Rachid (L), upon his arrival in the capital Rabat (Getty)

Francis emphasises religious freedom at start of two-day trip

During his first meeting in Rabat Saturday, Pope Francis underlined the importance of religious liberty and its connection to the dignity and rights owed to every person, regardless of their religion.

“We believe that God created human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and he calls them to live as brothers and sisters and to spread the values of goodness, love and peace,” the pope said March 30 in the Moroccan capital.

“That is why freedom of conscience and religious freedom – which is not limited to freedom of worship alone, but allows all to live in accordance with their religious convictions – are inseparably linked to human dignity.”

Authentic dialogue brings awareness of the importance of religion “for building bridges between people”, he continued, adding that it is faith in God which leads people “to acknowledge the eminent dignity of each human being, as well as his or her inalienable rights.”

This requires moving beyond tolerance “to respect and esteem for others,” he said. “Understood in this way, creating bridges between people – from the point of view of interreligious dialogue – calls for a spirit of mutual regard, friendship and indeed fraternity.”

Pope Francis spoke during the first stop of a March 30-31 visit to Morocco. He is visiting the country to promote peace, dialogue between Christians and Muslims, and care for migrants.

“This visit is for me an occasion of joy and gratitude,” he said to Moroccans, including members of the country’s civil society, diplomatic corps, and authorities. “It allows me to see at first hand the richness of your land, your people and your traditions.”

The pope’s visits to two Muslim-majority countries, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco, fall exactly 800 years after the historic meeting of St. Francis of Assisi and Al-Kamil, Sultan of Egypt.

Commemorating this meeting, Pope Francis said he is grateful his visit “offers a significant opportunity for advancing interreligious dialogue and mutual understanding among the followers of our two religions.”

“That prophetic event shows that the courage to encounter one another and extend a hand of friendship is a pathway of peace and harmony for humanity, whereas extremism and hatred cause division and destruction,” he said.

“It is my hope that our mutual esteem, respect and cooperation will help strengthen the bonds of sincere friendship,” he continued, “and enable our communities to prepare a better future for coming generations.”

In his speech, the pope praised the 2016 International Conference on the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries, held in Marrakesh, which condemned exploitation of religion for discrimination and encouraged the participation of minorities in society through full citizenship.

He also commended the Al Mowafaqa Ecumenical Institute in Rabat, an initiative of Catholics and other Christians which also promotes dialogue with culture and Islam.

“All these are ways to halt the misuse of religion to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and the invocation of the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression,” he said, referencing the peace declaration he signed with Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, in Abu Dhabi in February.

Christians, though a small minority in Morocco at less than one percent of the population, are appreciative of the place they hold in Moroccan society, he said, and “wish to do their part in building a fraternal and prosperous nation, out of concern for the common good of its people.”

He noted the “significant work of the Catholic Church” in the country, which has provided social services and education, to students of every background.

“In thanking God for all that has been accomplished, allow me to encourage Catholics and all Christians to be servants, promoters and defenders of human fraternity here in Morocco,” he said.