Religious tolerance: from Jamestown to Morocco

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America’s struggle for religious freedom began in the early seventeenth century.  The first settlers were primarily Protestants who were fiercely loyal to the Crown, the Church of England and to their government. But our antecedents learned very quickly that what worked in England was not applicable to their circumstances in the New World. They found themselves confronted with a new culture — that of the Native Americans. Despite the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe, the settlers in Jamestown were not successful in making Christianity attractive, to coin a phrase.

Tensions among the settlers arose when some were suspected of being Catholic. But after a few brutal acts, the settlers dispensed with infighting, choosing instead to focus on survival. The resulting religious tolerance laid the foundation for religious freedom and became the basis for the ideas that Thomas Jefferson laid out a century and a half later in The Declaration of Independence.

America is more than the sum of its parts. We are more than The Declaration of Independence, or the Revolutionary War. We are more than the horrors of slavery, our participation in the Middle Passage, segregation. We are more than the noble, if complicated, battles of the Civil War. We are more than the struggle for civil rights. Men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were not just good men and great thinkers. They are ambassadors to the modern age. To us.  To you and me.

Their writings, preceded by 150 years of other writings by other lesser known but equally remarkable people, offered cautionary tales about hubris, about overconfidence in man’s ability to restrain himself. But more importantly, they recognized that when afforded a chance at groupthink, Congress may overstep its authority.

This applies to our foreign policies as well as to our domestic ones. It applies to the public and private acts of those in power and of those individuals who seek and utilize alliances with those in power for their own purposes. Those purposes may be good, but without oversight, We the People are often left in the dark about such activities.

Those who seek such powers developed bureaucratic agencies, such as the Federal Election Commission and the House Legislative Resource Center, to assist average citizens in procuring information that is generally undiscoverable. If more Americans availed themselves of these resources, and asked for more information available under the Freedom of Information Act, then they would observe a quick sea-change in the behavior of elected officials and those who seek their assistance.

The midterm elections in November are deliberately focused on the domestic political affairs. President Obama wants to preserve his reputation as best he can, so that if he loses a majority in either house, he will be able to step in — a la Bill Clinton 1994 — and show his post-partisan credentials once and for all to see. Just in time for 2012.  The ambitious Republican minority has two key features: a vocal group of “movement conservatives” aligned with the Tea Party, Sarah Palin and Rand Paul against more pragmatic, realistic and entrenched establishment Republican types.

President Obama wants the average American voter to embrace his “Blame Bush” strategy. Spokespeople continually note the last two years of George W. Bush’s tenure cost Americans 3 million jobs. Which, oddly enough, coincides with Democrats assuming control of both houses of Congress. More than 7 million jobs have been lost since Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the first woman speaker of the United States House in January 2007. Loosely translated, Obama is essentially accusing Bush of being too bipartisan.  The logic never really followed. But then again, it rarely does when the powerful are obfuscating their real political agenda. This happens on both sides of the aisle — and everywhere in between.

Rarely are the big-ticket items presidents concern themselves with left without debate. It is the small-ticket items, a few million dollars here or a few lines of language in a bill inserted or left out there, that are deeply concerning.

Since 1984, my heart and soul has been focused on Africa. From the Ethiopian famine to the end of Apartheid in South Africa, I remember the nightly news broadcasts. The stark images of small children covered in flies. I remember their faces.  I remember the Band Aid “Do they know it’s Christmastime?” song, and Bob Geldof’s triumphant Live AID effort the next year.  Throughout my life, despite different clients and ambitions, I remained engaged with a community of aid workers, experts, legal minds and experienced military and special forces folks to further my knowledge and interest in various aspects of the human rights crises in Africa.

With President Obama essentially sanctioning genocide in Sudan, it is unlikely he will intervene or even take an interest in other African nations.  Sudan’s genocidaire-in-chief, President Omar al-Bashir, has availed himself of the janjaweed and other militias. But his story of tyranny extends back to his early relations with terror mastermind Osama bin Laden. It defies logic that president Obama allows this indicted war criminal to dictate the terms of peace to a people he actively sought to wipe off the earth. Truly bizarre statecraft.

In Congo, the bloodiest and deadliest war since the end of World War II rages on. The last figures offered by the United Nations state that 45,000 people die every month in the Congo.  Since President Obama was inaugurated, that translates to roughly 855,000 dead — for conflict minerals that make our lives easier. Tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold.  The number of dead surpasses those who died in the Rwandan genocide.

Sudan. Congo. Exactly how many “Rwanda moments” will President Obama have on his watch?

Bloodshed, human trafficking, child slavery, oppression, preventable diseases, malnourishment and starvation continue, with few exceptions, across the continent of Africa. One such exception is Morocco. This nation, perhaps more than any other African or Muslim nation, has partnered with the US in national security operations and intelligence gathering.  The Moroccans have suffered terror attacks for their alliance with America.  But they have soldiered on — building even stronger relations with the United States.  Morocco is a jewel in the crown of religious equality. Not an Arab nation, Morocco is ethnically diverse.  Its brand of Islam bears little resemblance to the bigoted, ignorant portrayals of Islam that have saturating the airwaves since September 11th.

In Morocco, Judaism is recognized as a faith.  Jewish people are respected and worship openly and freely at synagogues across the country. Roman Catholics have churches where they, too, worship openly and freely.  Catholicism is recognized as a faith. Protestant Christians also have churches where they openly exercise their right to worship.  Morocco has a very long history of embracing religious freedom.

Thousands of Americans live, work, worship and love in Morocco.  Thousands more tourists visit the oasis of Morocco, not only from the United States but from so many other nations.  And yet, Morocco finds itself the target of attacks proffered by a small cadre of Christians expelled from the country. More importantly,Congressman Frank Wolf has taken a striking interest in Morocco’s anti-proselytizing law.

After placing more than sixty calls to request comments, information, and context from Congressman Wolf and his colleagues, Messrs. Franks and Bilirakis never returned my initial calls. I received a tepid “no comment” from Minority Leader Boehner’s office. Sadly, no Democrat members of Congress offered a for-the-record comment either. So, as the wheels of FOIA requests turned and I awaited appointments with the appropriate agencies, I was pleasantly surprised when one of the Americans expelled from Morocco contacted me directly.

Jack Rusenko, a very prominent figure in the evangelical community of American expats in Morocco, offered to share his side of the story. Mr. Rusenko founded an American school in Morocco, the George Washington Academy.  He is a longtime resident who has many influential friends, not the least of which is his biggest Congressional booster — Congressman Frank Wolf.

The first 51 minutes of our interview was on the record. Mr. Rusenko spoke with an admirable candor, of his love for Morocco, of his work, and of his faith. His school was deemed a soft-target, as many American establishments abroad were, and shortly after September 11th, his school received some funds to secure it from terror-related activity. I am awaiting confirmation for the exact amount appropriated and what oversight was exercised.  Despite his expulsion from Morocco, authorities reiterated to me on and off the record that his school was not subject to closure for proselytizing. The school acts in accordance with Morocco’s laws.

Rusenko offered a passionate defense of his beliefs, of his commitment to the school.  His story was a similar account to what I heard from Moroccan authorities and published accounts. Then I asked him directly about his expulsion, what his perceptions were and what he believed triggered the actions taken against him. To this, he offered, “My situation is precarious.”

Rusenko was not in Morocco when the order was made. He was notified both by friends in-country and assorted government officials. He was told he would not be allowed to return.  Moroccan authorities alleged he was engaged in proselytizing. “I can see why they put me on the list. Because I have been very successful in making Christianity attractive,” Rusenko told me.

When I pressed him to explain what he meant, he offered the following in third person: “What is the evidence? Jack is an evangelical Christian?”

I asked him if he had any direct conversations with the Moroccan ambassador, Aziz Mekouar. He indicated they had multiple conversations, then related that he stated the following to the ambassador: “Like most Muslims, evangelicals want others to accept their faith. Is that a crime?”

At no point during our conversation did Mr. Rusenko retract his statements. He only reiterated that his “situation was precarious” and that he wanted only to return to help his school.

Ambassador Mekuouar was equally candid. He simply restated the Moroccan law against proselytizing. Jews, Catholics, Muslims and Protestants worship openly in Morocco. He gently reminded me that Morocco is a sovereign state, and their laws must be respected. “According to the same law, people [like Rusenko] have the right to appeal. This matter is in the hands of the courts.”

The Ambassador reiterated that local Moroccan authorities investigated Mr. Rusenko’s case and charged him based upon evidence. He confirmed that he spoke with Mr. Rusenko on multiple occasions but declined to characterize Rusenko’s words. Mekuoar noted he confirmed to Rusenko that the “judicial process” would accommodate an appeal. If Mr. Rusenko wants to return to the country, he must take appropriate steps in accordance with the laws.

This expulsion of Christians from Morocco was not widespread; it was limited to a group of people accused of proselytizing. Their Congressional benefactors, or defenders, dispatched staff on an authorized trip where they closely aligned themselves with a political opponent of the Moroccan government, the Polisario.  The funding source of the trip is unknown, as I am still investigating disclosure reports and assembling a chart of the myriad staffers, Congressional fellows, think tankers and others that are involved.

It seems strange that because a few friends of a Congressman were deported for proselytizing — and who tout their “success in making Christianity attractive” — are to be given more weight, more confidence than the Moroccan government — which has repeatedly demonstrated its alliance with the United States in the fight against radical Islam. Moreover, the domestic policy of Morocco, which embraces freedom of religion, is consistent with American ideals.

Morocco is a sovereign nation. It is a partner in national security and in touting international cooperation, understanding and trade. Simply setting up shop, or a school, does not mean we get to enjoy financial or personal gains without respect to local laws and customs.

At best, there is some unsanctioned foreign policy and statecraft happening without oversight in Congress. At worst, there may be gross incompetence. Or something as yet undiscovered. In the meantime, I fear that Congressman Wolf and Mr. Rusenko are in need of a history lesson. Much as the Jamestown settlers realized that the local rules applied to them, like it or not, the same is true today for the American expats living in Morocco.

America’s relationship with Morocco should not be undermined because of a few angry settlers and a congressman with an unclear agenda.  Let us remember the lessons of Jamestown, and the sacrifices that set us on the path to freedom.

Elizabeth Blackney is best known as a media & communications strategist to private sector clients, US Senate & Gubernatorial campaigns, as a political emissary, confidante and commentator.