PARIS – The U.S. ambassador to Morocco has expressed dismay over the expulsion of Americans accused of trying to convert Moroccans to Christianity in the North African kingdom.
The episode, involving several other foreign nationals, threatened to overshadow U.S. praise on Friday for Morocco's recent steps to improve human rights, women's rights and democracy.
A charitable group called the Village of Hope, a home for orphaned and unwanted children in northern Morocco, said Thursday that 16 of its workers were ordered on Monday to leave the country.
Islam is Morocco's official religion — one of King Mohammed VI's titles is Commander of the Faithful — and Christian evangelism is banned. Periodic expulsions for it have taken place in the past.
U.S. Ambassador Samuel Kaplan, in a message Thursday to Americans registered with the embassy, said the U.S. doesn't take issue with Moroccan law.
Kaplan expressed "our distress" about the way they were sent away. He said the Moroccan government refused a hearing for those expelled — and that "violates fundamental rules of due process." He said "a number" of Americans were involved, without specifying.
Separately, timed with the release Friday of a U.S. State Department report on human rights, Kaplan trumpeted progress in Morocco on women's rights and democracy, and "one of the strongest records in the Arab world" toward reforms that have improved human rights.
For leaders of the children's home, the expulsions were a step in the wrong direction.
The group, on its Web site, called the expulsions "part of a nationwide crackdown against Christians living in Morocco" and said the "parents" were given hours to pack up and leave — without being shown any evidence of wrongdoing.
"The eviction process was the most painful situation imaginable," the statement said.
The group said it "always sought to abide" by the law, and had required volunteers and visitors at the center near the town of Ain Leuh in northern Morocco to sign a declaration promising to abide by the ban.
The group said it had appealed to the king "to act with mercy and help us reach a point of compromise and reunite the 33 children with the only parents they know."
Michael Paita, of French affiliate group La Gerbe who was listed as a contact on the group statement, said couples from the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States were among those expelled.
Speaking by phone, Paita said all the workers there were Christian, "but they were there only for social reasons" — not to spread Christianity.
According to the group's site, the home near Ain Leuh was created by two American women — Emmagene Coates and Ellen Doran — over a half-century ago. Coates died in 1995 and Doran in 2007.