March 12, 2010 / 6:29 PM / 10 years ago

Morocco steps up expulsions of Christian aid workers

* Morocco says aid workers were preaching in secret

* Expulsions signal tougher line on Christian groups

* Government says Morocco remains tolerant, open-minded

By Tom Pfeiffer

RABAT, March 12 (Reuters) - Morocco has expelled up to 70 Christian foreign aid workers since the start of this month, saying they were abusing its tradition of religious tolerance to try to convert local Muslims.

The figure of 70 people comes from aid groups and Western diplomats who said Americans, Dutch, British and New Zealanders were among those expelled.

Morocco has occasionally expelled small numbers of missionary groups, many funded by U.S. evangelical churches. The latest move against some well-established organisations operating in the country for years suggests a new, tougher line.

Those expelled include couples who adopted Moroccan children and a group that ran a children’s home in the Middle Atlas mountains.

People living near the children’s home had complained that foreigners were targeting minors and exploiting the poverty of local people to shake their faith, the government said.

"They changed their behaviour to begin doing missionary work with young children," Communications Minister Khalid Naciri told Reuters. "This decision is not against one religion or another. Morocco is, and will remain, open-minded and tolerant."

Muslims make up 99 percent of Morocco’s population and the country allows freedom of worship to mostly foreign Christians and a few thousand indigenous Jews.

Western governments voiced unease at the expulsions, saying the foreign workers should have been given the chance to defend their activities in a court.

"We were disheartened and distressed to learn of the recent expulsion by the Moroccan Government of a number of foreigners, including numerous Americans, who had been legally residing in Morocco," U.S. Ambassador Samuel Kaplan said in a statement.

"We are not talking about people who were in Morocco a few weeks to hand out bibles," said Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen. "It involves persons who have been taking care of children peacefully for 10 years."

One Western diplomat said he was told that more foreigners may be deported. (Additional reporting by Zakia Abdennebi; editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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