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Morocco gives Elton John a rapturous welcome

Elton John performs at the Rock in Rio Music Festival in Lisbon May 22, 2010. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro
Elton John performs at the Rock in Rio Music Festival in Lisbon May 22, 2010. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro

By Tom Pfeiffer

RABAT (Reuters) - Singer Elton John defied hostile Islamists to headline Morocco's biggest music festival on Wednesday night and received a rapturous welcome from a crowd of thousands.

Politicians from the opposition Islamist PJD party said the gay British star was not welcome in the conservative north African kingdom and that granting him such a profile would tarnish Morocco's image.

Organisers said the singer's private life was irrelevant and went ahead with the show, the highlight of the week-long Mawazine World Rhythms festival that has become the cultural showpiece of Morocco's secular-leaning monarchy.

Mounted police and dozens of security staff were on duty but there was no hint of any disturbances or protests, and the performer himself made no mention of the dispute surrounding his presence in Morocco.

"God bless you all... God bless Morocco," the singer said as the concert, lasting almost three hours, wound down.

Organisers said 40,000 people attended the show though Reuters estimates suggested there were fewer.

The 63-year-old star appeared to have toned down his outfit for the occasion, swapping his flamboyant trademark colored spectacles for a pair of cool shades and black coat-tails with a multicolored splash on the sleeve, albeit with a scarlet shirt.

John, an outspoken critic of homophobia and an anti-AIDS campaigner, said very little beside thanking King Mohammed and the people of Morocco, telling the crowd how much he was enjoying himself and introducing the band.

The audience joined in with hits "I'm Still Standing" and "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word" while a hushed reverence descended with the first bars of "Candle in the Wind."

Hundreds of people paid 600 Moroccan dirhams ($67) for a ticket. "It's magical, just magical," said Houda Sefriou, a 48-year-old housewife.

(Editing by Steve Addison)