Under the cover of surrounding buildings, dozens of people lined the streets of Rabat to welcome Pope Francis to Morocco, whose two-day visit will focus on interfaith dialogue and issues of migration.
Rain showered the waving flags of the Vatican City and Morocco during the pope’s drive from the Rabat-Sale Airport to Hassan Tower. The overcast weather led to the cancellation the pontiff’s parade down Mohammed V Avenue and his official welcome and greeting by King Mohammed VI at the Royal Palace.
Instead, King Mohammed VI received the pope at the Rabat-Sale Airport and escorted him to Hassan Tower — a long awaited meeting that was first officially announced in March.
The last papal visit was 34 years ago in 1985, when Pope John Paul II was invited to Morocco by the late-King Hassan II to build a bridge between Muslims and Christians.
Meeting religious extremism with interreligious solidarity
“Today’s visit falls within the framework of the long-standing relations between Morocco and the Vatican. I was keen to make sure the place and the date of the visit reflect the symbolic depth, the historic significance and the civilizational importance of this meeting,” King Mohammed VI said during his opening speech at Hassan Tower.
Peaceful collaboration between Muslims and Christians is a central element of Pope Francis’ visit, and the pontiff has continuously advocated for greater interfaith dialogue throughout his six-year tenure.
After the king’s welcome speech, the pontiff spoke to Moroccan authorities gathered at the Hassan Tower complex as hundreds of people in the neighborhood watched the historic event from the streets. Pope Francis said it was “essential” for all religious believers to respond to religious fanaticism and extremism with solidarity.
The pope called religious extremism “an offense against religion and against God himself.” These statements come 15 days after a terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which left 50 people dead and at dozens more injured.
After his address, the Pope paid his respects at the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V before leaving the heart of Rabat to visit the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams to meet with Islamic scholars and students.
Pope Francis will then head to the Caritas migrant center, where he will convey messages celebrating hope and share humanity to a group of sub-Saharan migrants.
As the rain continued, dozens of people, including many Catholic sub-Saharan migrants, gathered around the screens broadcasting the pope’s speech at the Hassan Tower.
Veronique, a migrant from Cameroon, who declined to give her last name to Morocco World News, hopes the pope’s visit will lead to a brighter future for Christians in Morocco. The 32-year-old is a Roman Catholic and a member of the Christian community in Morocco, which is approximately 2,000 to 5,000 people.
“It is a very big moment that the Pope is here because we have a lot of difficulty being accepted as immigrants,” Veronique said. “So, it is important we have the right to pray and practice our religion.”
Days before his visit, the pontiff thanked King Mohammed VI for allowing him to use Morocco as a platform to share his “profound convictions” of forgiveness, tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and peace.
“As Muslims and Christians, we all believe in one God, the creator and most merciful who created men and established them in a shared world so that they live together as brothers and sisters and help each other in times of need,” said the Pope in a video message published by Vatican News.
Day two of the pontiff’s visit
The pope will begin his second and last day in Morocco in the city of Temara, just southwest of Rabat. There, the pontiff will visit the Rural Center for Social Services. He will then proceed to meet with priests and the Council of Churches in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rabat, before traveling to the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium, where he will host a mass.
The pope will then expect to leave for the Rabat-Sale Airport, where he will have a farewell ceremony before his flight back to Rome.
Morocco is the second Arab country the Pope has visited in 2019. The pontiff spent three days in the United Arab Emirates from February 3-5. During his UAE stay, Pope Francis reiterated his commitment to themes of interreligious dialogue and solidarity among different faiths.
According to Vatican News, Pope Francis’s next international visit will be to Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia from May 5-7.