Pope Francis has joined Morocco‘s King Mohammed VI in saying Jerusalem should be a “symbol of peaceful coexistence” for Christians, Jews and Muslims on the first day of a visit to the North African country.
The spiritual leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics was invited by King Mohammed VI for the sake of “interreligious dialogue”, according to Moroccan authorities.
He is expected to celebrate mass at a Rabat stadium with an estimated 10,000 people attending as well as visiting a church-run social services centre and meeting with Catholic priests and other Christian representatives on Sunday.
In a joint statement on Saturday, the two leaders said Jerusalem was “common patrimony of humanity and especially the followers of the three monotheistic religions”.
“The specific multi-religious character, the spiritual dimension and the particular cultural identity of Jerusalem… must be protected and promoted,” they said in the declaration released by the Vatican as the pontiff visited Rabat.
The Moroccan king chairs a committee created by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to safeguard and restore Jerusalem’s religious, cultural and architectural heritage.
The joint statement came after US President Donald Trump‘s landmark recognition of the disputed city as the capital of Israel, which sparked anger across the Muslim world, especially from Palestinians who see Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Improving relations with other religions has been a priority for the Argentine pontiff, whose papacy has been marred by clergy facing a wave of child sex abuse allegations.
Addressing thousands of Moroccans who braved the rain to attend the welcome ceremony, Francis said it was “essential to oppose fanaticism”.
He stressed the need for “appropriate preparation of future religious guides” before meeting trainee imams later on Saturday.
Catholics are a tiny minority in Morocco, where 99 percent of the population is Muslim. The king is revered across West Africa as “commander of the faithful”.
Speaking at the ceremony at the Tour Hassan (or Hassan Tower) mosque and nearby mausoleum in Rabat, the monarch also voiced opposition to “radicalism”.
“That which terrorists have in common is not religion, it’s precisely the ignorance of religion. It’s time that religion is no longer an alibi… for this ignorance, for this intolerance,” he said.
Francis rode to the ceremony in his Popemobile, passing rows of Moroccan and Vatican City flags and an estimated 12,000 well-wishers who packed the esplanade.
Buildings had been repainted, lawns manicured and security stepped up before the first papal visit to Morocco since John Paul II in 1985.
A 17-year-old was arrested as he tried to throw himself onto the king’s limousine to seek the monarch’s help, the police said.
Some 130,000 people across Rabat watched the first stage of the pope’s visit, which was beamed onto giant screens, officials said.
‘Right to a future’
After stopping by the royal palace, Francis and Mohammed visited an institute where around 1,300 students are studying to become imams and preachers.
There they heard from a French and a Nigerian student of the institute, which teaches Islam and is backed by the king.
In Morocco, where Islam is the state religion, authorities are eager to stress the country’s “religious tolerance” which allows Christians and Jews to worship freely.
But Moroccans are automatically considered Muslim, apart from a minority who are born Jewish. Apostasy is socially frowned upon, and proselytising is a criminal offence.
Those who try to “rock the faith of a Muslim or to convert him to another religion” risk a prison term of up to three years.
After years in the shadows, since 2017, the small number of converts have called openly for the right to live “without persecution” and “without discrimination”.
Around 30,000 to 35,000 Catholics live in Morocco, many of them from sub-Saharan Africa.
The pope finished his Saturday schedule by meeting migrants – including children dressed in colourful hats – at a centre run by Catholic humanitarian organisation Caritas.
“Everyone has the right to a future,” said Francis, who has throughout his papacy highlighted the plight of migrants and refugees.
He criticised “collective expulsions” and said ways for migrants to regularise their status should be encouraged.
Caritas centres in Rabat, Casablanca and Tangier welcomed 7,551 new arrivals in 2017, according to the charity, helping migrants access services.
Rabat claims to have a “humanistic” approach to migration and rejects allegations by rights groups of “brutal arrest campaigns” and “forced displacement” to the country’s southern border.