efe-epaFatima Zohra Bouaziz Mohammedia (Morocco)

Members of Morocco's minority Christian community have urged Pope Francis to intervene on their lack of religious freedom during his upcoming visit to the North African nation.

Zuhair Dukali, the president of the Coordination of Moroccan Christians, a local lobby group, sat down with EFE in Mohammedia, a city between Rabat and Casablanca on Morocco's Atlantic coast.

"We're happy with the pope's visit, but we don't have high hopes that his visit can change our situation as Christians," he said.

A letter sent to the Holy See called for the basic religious freedom of Christians to be respected, for the community to be able to practice in public and to be granted the rights to Christian marriage and funeral services.

The group also asked that their children be exempt from compulsory Islamic studies at school and that they are granted the liberty to give Christian names to their children.

Pope Francis is due to travel to the capital Rabat on Mar. 30-31.

Morocco's Constitution recognizes Sunni Islam as the official religion and Judaism as a minority, but not Christianity.

Although it recognizes the religious freedoms of its foreign residents, Morocco does not permit religious conversions from Sunniism to Christianity, or even to Shiism, the smaller branch of Islam on a global scale.

Dukali believes the pope's visit will encourage serious dialogue between the Christian community and Moroccan authorities.

He urged the pope to recognize that there are native Christians, of Moroccan origin, as well as those from abroad who have settled there.

Due to the clandestine manner in which Christians exercise their faiths, often in so-called home churches, official statistics on their numbers are scant. A report from the United States State Department estimated that there were between 2,000 and 6,000 in 2017.

Dukali called for an end to underground Christianity in Morocco and petitioned authorities not to prohibit officially-recognized churches in the country, which include Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical and Anglican branches, from offering their services to Moroccan Christian converts.

Moroccan law only punishes proselytism – the act of trying to convert someone – rather than the act of conversion itself, something the Catholic Church in Morocco abides by.

The archbishop of Rabat, Cristobál López Romero, a Spaniard, said in a recent interview with EFE that the Church had not established itself in Morocco to recruit more believers and that the issues of Moroccan Christianity and conversion were an "internal matter."

But, along with the legal consequences of proselytism, comes the social castigation for those who leave behind their Muslim faith.

"My father would rather I was a drug addict than a Christian," Dukali, who has been Christian for 18 years, said.

In 2010, Morocco expelled 17 foreigners, mainly from the United States, for alleged proselytizing.

Since then, a relative tolerance for Moroccan Christians has prevailed.

One of the effects of this is increased visibility for the country's Christians, whether that be online or in domestic media.

"It's evolving slowly," Dukali said and added that he is working with individual Moroccan Christians to help them overcome the "dread" of going public.

The fear is such that followers are still wary of taking photos at Christian events, even behind closed doors at home mass, in case anyone is later recognized.