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05RABAT991 2005-05-13 16:45:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Rabat
Cable title:  

MARRAKECH BRAVES CONTROVERSY TO ROCK TO CHRISTIAN

Tags:   MO PHUM PREL SCUL 
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1. (C) SUMMARY: Thousands of Moroccans rocked to the music
of seven American Christian bands and nine Moroccan groups at
a well-organized outdoor concert, dubbed the Friendship Fest,
that took place in Marrakech without incident on May 6-8.
The event's American and Moroccan organizers viewed the
festival a "success" and told Poloffs that the Americans have
been invited to organize an even larger event next year.
Police estimated that some 100,000 concert goers took part in
the free three-day festival. Although security was tight --
we observed at least 15 police vans and three military
convoys in the vicinity of the grounds -- it was not
oppressive, and concert goers were not restrained from
responding to the music. The concert had become increasingly
controversial as voices in mostly Islamist circles, but
especially within the Islamist Party for Justice and
Development (PJD) and the nationalist Istiqlal party, voiced
concerns about an alleged Christian evangelical invasion of
Morocco (reftels). Although the festival came off without a
hitch, the underlying controversy has not abated as the
Minister of Habous and Islamic Affairs was forced to once
again deny reports of ongoing Christian evangelism during
oral questioning at parliament on May 11. A separate
business development conference in Fez, also organized by
American evangelists, concluded with mixed results. END
SUMMARY.



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FRIENDSHIP FEST A SUCCESS


--------------------------





2. (SBU) Taking advantage of a free public rock concert in a
large field outside the walls of Marrakech, thousands of
Moroccans joined a smattering of American and other foreign
tourists to sway to the tunes of seven American contemporary
Christian rock bands and nine Moroccan pop groups on May 6-8.
There was no indication that the thousands of mostly poor
Moroccan youth understood that they were attending a
Christian music festival, and the GOM had taken pains in
recent weeks to downplay any religious element to the event.
Most probably attended the concert because of the free music,
said concert co-producer Tom Landis. Indeed, in spite of
weeks of controversy in the national press, local officials
in Marrakech avoided all references to religion in the
promotion of the concert, pitching the festival instead as a
free American rock concert with Moroccan bands. Moroccan
officials said they invited the American organizers, Creation
Festivals, to organize another event next year.



3. (C) Moroccan police estimated that 15,000 people attended
the first night (Friday, May 6) of the concert, 40,000 the
second (Saturday), and 50,000 the final night (Sunday).
However, Creation Festivals director Reverend Harry Thomas,
who is an experienced state-side concert organizer, judged
the Friday night crowd size to be closer to 7000 people.
Poloffs, who attended the last two nights of the festival,
estimated that the crowds at their fullest on Saturday and
Sunday were no more than 5000 - 8000 persons at any given
time. Abdelali Doumou, President of the Regional Council of
Marrakech-Tansift-Al Haouz, explained that the Moroccan
police took into account the constant flow of people into and
out of the concert area in order to arrive at their
estimates. Clearly not seeking to play down the numbers at
all, the semi-official French-language daily Le Matin
reported that a total of 85,000 people attended the festival.
The performances, which began around 6:00 PM each night,
lasted well past midnight.



--------------------------


PEOPLE CAME TO CHECK IT OUT


--------------------------





4. (C) Poloffs saw hundreds of mostly young, male Moroccans
at the front of the crowd dancing to music whose lyrics were
charged with Christian content. Cannabis could be smelled on
the second night at the edge of the crowd. Although young
males from 10 to 21 years old appeared to be the dominant
demographic in the crowd, Poloffs also observed young women
and a sizable contingent of working-age men standing in the
middle of the concert. Bearded men in traditional dress
meandered through the crowd and a lot of veiled Moroccan
women sat on the ground at the periphery. Poloffs also
spotted small groups of Americans and other foreigners
dispersed throughout the concert grounds. Doumou told
Poloffs that the crowd's enthusiasm is a sign of Morocco's
"appetite" for this type of free cultural event. He
indicated he would continue to look for similar ways to reach
out more to this segment of the population. He was
particularly struck, he said, by the engagement of Moroccans
with the American musicians and with Americans who had come
to see the show.



--------------------------


SECURITY TIGHT BUT NOT OPPRESSIVE


--------------------------





5. (C) At least 15 police vans and three military convoys
were stationed at strategic points around the concert
grounds, located on the outskirts of Marrakech.
Plain-clothed policemen also circulated among the crowds and,
along with approximately two dozen private security officers,
manned the stage area, where protection was reinforced by
rows of portable iron gates. Doumou told Poloffs that some
200 policemen in all were present at the event. Although
tight, security was not oppressive, and Poloffs observed that
avid concert goers in front of the stage were largely
permitted to form dancing pits and "crowd surf" without
intervention. Poloffs noted an occasional detention here and
there, including at least two individuals who were arrested
for petty theft, according to one policeman and Doumou, but
did not observe -- nor hear about -- any other security
incidents.



6. (C) Doumou asserted to Poloffs that at no point was he
concerned about security for the concert, despite the
avalanche of press articles alleging an evangelical Christian
invasion of Morocco in the weeks leading up to the concert.
He said he rejected recommendations from security officials
to mount motorcycle barriers in the concert area on grounds
that the concert should preserve its openness and be free for
all who wished to attend. He commented that fearing for the
safety of what he called a "gang" of "Satanic" heavy
metal-loving concert goers from Casablanca, a small group of
policemen was dispatched to keep a close protective eye on
them. Doumou said this precaution ended up being
unnecessary, however, as the group took part in the concert
without causing trouble.



--------------------------


CHRISTIAN PERFORMANCES NOT "OBJECTIONABLE"


--------------------------





7. (C) While respecting the organizers' request to refrain
from public prayer and overt proselytization while on stage,
the Christian artists did not hold back on proclaiming their
worshipful lyrics or raising their arms in personal Christian
worship while performing. Oblivious for the most part to the
meaning of the lyrics because of the language barrier,
Moroccan youth at the front responded in kind, raising their
hands too, and often shouting response phrases back to the
artists. The R&B-sounding Out of Eden sister threesome
accompanied one of their dance-along songs with the
commentary, "God is faithful, no matter what happens in your
life. God bless Morocco! God bless Marrakech!" The
Newsboys, whose New Zealand-born lead singer donned a black
Moroccan djellaba for the occasion, rocked concert goers with
their edgy grunge-sounding music, which the lead singer at
one point accompanied with the statement, "We pray that one
day He may come and save Marrakech." The Newsboys concluded
their Saturday night set with the call, "God bless King
Mohammed VI, and God bless Morocco!"



8. (C) Poloffs asked Doumou whether he found any of the
American groups objectionable, specifically the Newsboys.
While Doumou acknowledged that the Newsboys lead singer was a
charismatic artist who "manipulated" the crowd, he stated he
had no "objection to the group's lyrics." "They've got their
(Christian) message and I've got mine (Muslim)," he said.
"There is no reason why the two can't co-exist."



--------------------------


MOROCCAN MOTIVATIONS FOR ORGANIZING CONCERT


--------------------------





9. (C) Doumou explained to Poloffs that he was committed to
organizing the concert to consolidate friendly relations
between the Moroccan and American people. The concert would
help improve Morocco's image for Americans and vice versa and
would promote Marrakech as a tourist destination for
Americans, he said. He noted that the biggest challenge was
to manage the politics of the event, which many in Morocco's
conservative Islamist circles, but especially from within the
Islamist PJD and the nationalist Istiqlal political parties,
strongly opposed. Doumou indicated that his empathic message
to the PJD and Istiqlal at the national level -- he has
served in parliament since 1993 -- was that the concert was
intended to promote friendly private relations between the
two countries and not to proselytize Moroccan Muslims.



10. (C) Doumou said he was interviewed by the New York
Times, the Daily Telegraph (UK) and the Washington Post on
the second evening of the festival. Visiting journalists
probed him on whether he believed the GOM sought to win
support from influential American evangelicals on the Western
Sahara issue. Doumou said it was by chance that the concert
promoters happened to be evangelicals. He said that he told
each of the journalists, "I met (concert promoter) Harry
Thomas. I like Harry, who happens to be a a Christian. I
might have invited Harry to hold a concert, even if he had
been a Communist." Doumou commented to Poloffs that the PJD
and Istiqlal's resistance to the concert was largely
motivated by political considerations ahead of the 2007
parliamentary elections. He explained that the issue of
religion is a "very sensitive" one in Morocco, and that it
can be "exploited for political gains as parties play on the
ignorance and fervor of the masses."



11. (C) Creation Festivals co-organizer Tim Landis said that
during the height of the media controversy over evangelism in
Morocco, the GOM had wanted to cancel the concert. Marrakech
Wali (Royal Governor) Mohamed Hassad and Doumou had pushed
back. (Note: the GOM postponed a Christian evangelical and
Muslim dialogue (Ref A) that was planned to precede the
concert. End note.) Landis said the Wali and Doumou agreed
to accept personal responsibility if the concert failed.
Landis told Poloff that at the beginning of the concert
planning, it was evident that the Moroccans had not thought
out the political consequences of the concert invitation.
"What they wanted was a real American rock concert on the
cheap," he said. Indeed, the concert was not expensive for
Marrakech. The evangelicals raised USD 135,000 to cover
costs, and the celebrity Christian rock musicians performed
without pay. Royal Air Maroc kicked in 80 free airline
tickets for the performers, and the Wali and Doumou leaned on
several Marrakech hotels to donate rooms. The regional
government promoted the concert in Morocco and provided
security.



--------------------------


FEZ BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT CONFERENCE FIZZLES


--------------------------





12. (C) Thomas and Landis mentioned to Poloff during the
concert that a nearly simultaneous business development
conference in Fez, organized on May 2-6 by a second group of
American evangelicals to bring Moroccan investors and
Americans together, proceeded smoothly until one of the
Americans referred to a picture of President Bush and his
father in the context of a discussion on family values.
Several Moroccans reportedly left the conference during the
ensuing discussion because of the introduction of the
political content, the evangelicals said. Doumou commented
that he was pleased that the business development conference,
which originally had been planned to coincide with the
concert, had been moved from Marrakech to Fez. "It is not my
problem," he said.



--------------------------


TOUFIQ DENIES CHRISTIAN EVANGELISM


--------------------------





13. (SBU) Responding to questions raised by the PJD caucus
about the Friendship Fest at parliament on May 11, carried on
the front-page of Le Matin on May 12, Minister of Habous and
Islamic Affairs Ahmed Toufiq dismissed alleged reports of
ongoing Christian evangelism in Morocco. "No foreigners have
declared to (Moroccan) authorities that they have come to
Morocco to practice evangelism," he told the PJD. He added
that the activities of foreigners established in Morocco are
"well known" to the government. Toufiq was confident that
economic need would not motivate impoverished Moroccans to
abandon their religion, and he deemed that the limited
charitable acts of Christian clerics in Morocco do not
undermine Islam. "Christian clerics recognized by the State
work in churches of different confessions to help members of
the Christian community in Morocco," he insisted. The PJD
continues to argue that the concert was a pretext for
American evangelicals to establish a foothold in Morocco,
according to an article published by the official Maghreb
Arab Press (MAP).



14. (SBU) A separate article in the Arabic-language daily
Assabah on May 8 noted that "according to official reports,"
800 Christian missionaries are now proselytizing in Morocco.
The article claimed that the number of apostate Moroccans
(converts to Christianity) doubled during the last year and
that Al Akhawayn University has become a center for
missionaries "from Arkansas and Georgia." (Note: Post
believes this article greatly exaggerates both the level of
missionary activities in Morocco and the number of Moroccans
who have converted from Islam. End Note).



--------------------------


COMMENT


--------------------------





15. (C) The most significant aspect of this three-day
festival is that it happened at all, and that the Moroccan
authorities supporting the event did not buckle under the
intense controversy it generated. We believe there was an
element of the GOM not fully comprehending what it had bitten
off by agreeing last year to host the event, and nervous
mutterings to us by senior officials including Taieb Fassi
Fihri (a member of the Istiqlal Party) suggest there must
have been discussion about canceling it. While the heat of
the controversy may have passed, it will take some time to
die down completely, especially in the Arabic-language press,
as the PJD, Istiqlal, and a few NGOs -- under the guise of
safeguarding Morocco's spiritual identity -- continue to eke
as much political mileage out of it as they can. The event
has certainly burnished Marrakech's reputation as a city in
Morocco where almost anything goes, and public officials
there seem to believe all the anxiety and trouble was worth
it. Whether they are willing to host a second round next
year remains to be seen.
RILEY