MARRAKESH, Morocco, May 9 - In a
sprawling open space alongside the
Royal Palace here last Saturday night,
Baimik Youness and his friend Salahe Boudde were
jumping with excitement, about to see their first American
rock concert. The Moroccan students had never heard of
the band, Rock 'n' Roll Worship Circus. Nor had they
realized that the three-day concert they were attending was
a Christian rock festival.
"It's not my business," said Mr. Youness, an 18-year-old Muslim and heavy-metal fan. "I just want to listen to the music."
But Mr. Boudde had a question: "What are 'evangelicals'?" Last weekend's concert, organized by several American evangelical groups and the Moroccan government and called the Friendship Fest, was staged despite criticism from Moroccan Islamic groups and opposition political parties. Seven American Christian bands alternated with Moroccan groups. The event drew more than 15,000 Moroccans a day, police Moroccans a day, police officials estimated, as well as dozens of evangelical Christians from around the United States.
The concert was about more than power chords for Jesus. From the evangelists' perspective, it was an opportunity to gain a foothold in a relatively liberal Muslim country and give religious priorities a more central role into American foreign policy. "We see ourselves as doing important foreign policy work that the Bush Administration is not doing," said the Rev. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, a Christianvalues lobbying group in Washington and one of the organizers of the festival. "As followers of Jesus, we should, in our civic capacity, work to reduce conflict by promoting international understanding," he said. From the Moroccan government's point of view, it was a chance to interact with what is perceived to be a politically influential group in American politics at a time when the country has been criticized on its human rights record and continues to grapple with a longstanding dispute over the status of Western Sahara.
Some media commentators in Morocco said that by befriending the evangelicals, the government was attempting to curry favor with American political leaders. The magazine Telquel said the government's embrace of the festival was intended to "sell the image of Morocco to the neo-conservative lobby in America."
The Marrakesh regional president, Abdelali Doumou, said in an interview that the government hoped the Friendship Fest would bolster Morocco's image on a variety of fronts, as "a modern country, a democratic country" and "to improve our image in the States in politics, in economics and everything."
He was more coy on the political influence wielded by the evangelicals but said, "If it happens that they are strong, it can help."
For Morocco, a pressing issue is Western Sahara, former Spanish territory that has been under Moroccan control for much of the past three decades. More than 150,000 former nomads from the region, the Sahrawi, have been in refugee camps in Algeria since fleeing the invading Moroccan army in 1975. Several American evangelical groups have provided assistance to the refugees and backed calls for a referendum to resolve the region's status. Some here say the government's welcome to the evangelicals was an attempt to co-opt their support.
In fact, one of the evangelical leaders who was behind the Christian rock festival, the Rev. Rob Schenck, who leads the conservative Christian lobbying group Faith and Action in Washington, said that after what he had seen in his meetings with Moroccan officials he would now seek to get evangelicals to reassess their position on Western Sahara and the Sahwaris' political leadership, the Polisario Front. "Evangelical Christians have to be extremely cautious about supporting any group that would sympathize with a socialist or Communist philosophy or world view, which is completely in conflict with an evangelical or Christian worldview," Mr. Schenck said in an interview. He said Moroccan officials had told the evangelical leaders that the Polisario had received Cuban training and aid.
The evangelicals did have to retreat on another front. After criticism from the press and Islamist groups, the Moroccan government canceled a planned conference on Christian- Muslim dialogue that was to have taken place in the week leading up to the rock festival.
One of the country's main opposition parties, Istiqlal, said the evangelicals were trying to use the events as a covert means of conversion to Christianity.
Mr. Doumou played down these fears, saying critics had drawn false inferences from some of festival's early promotional material. One evangelical organizer, Michael Kirtley, had called the event "an expedition for hearts and minds." Mr. Schenk had told The Christian Post, that the evangelicals would "communicate clearly why we personally embrace Jesus Christ." By the time of the concert, however, the evangelicals were watching their words, and there were no references to Christianity in promotional materials or on stage, outside the lyrics of the songs.
Evangelical attendees were given written instructions by the organizers not to proselytize, which is illegal in the organizers not to proselytize, which is illegal in Morocco. In interviews with more than a dozen of the evangelical Christians attending the concert, most stuck closely to that script, speaking instead about "bridging cultures" and "making friends." One, who would give only his first name, Samuel, said that some of his friends had been interrogated by the Moroccan authorities on suspicion of proselytizing. Many of the American Christians at the festival said they were thrilled at the chance to interact with local Muslims.
"To play worship music openly in a Muslim country, this is something that lots of people have been praying for for a long time," said Steve Iliff, a 44-year-old cook from Wisconsin who had traveled to the concert with four other members of his church.
Some Moroccans at the concert, like Mahmoud Zuine, a 21-year-old economics student, enjoyed the music but found the Christian component of the rock concert unsettling. "They know we love this music, so they use this music to pass their message," Mr. Zuine said. "It's like a magic way. It's not direct."
But he doubted that many of the Moroccans understood the lyrics. "I laugh because nobody knows what they are saying," he said.
All Material Copyright Samuel Lowenberg and/or the publication in which it appeared.