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Reports on Religious Freedom: Tunisia


Section I. Freedom of Religion

Islam is the state religion. The Constitution provides for the free exercise of other religions that do not disturb the public order, and the Government generally observes and enforces this right; however, it does not permit proselytizing and partially limits the religious freedom of Baha'is.

The Government controls and subsidizes mosques and pays the salaries of prayer leaders. The President appoints the Grand Mufti of the Republic. The 1988 Law on Mosques provides that only personnel appointed by the Government may lead activities in mosques, and stipulates that mosques must remain closed except during prayer times and other authorized religious ceremonies, such as marriages or funerals. New mosques may be built in accordance with national urban planning regulations but become the property of the State. The Constitution stipulates that the President of the Republic must be a Muslim. The Government also partially subsidizes the Jewish community.

The Government recognizes all Christian and Jewish religious organizations that were established before independence in 1956, but does not permit Christian groups to establish new churches.

The vast majority of the population of 9.2 million is nominally Muslim. There is no reliable data on the number of practicing Muslims. The nominal Christian community--composed of foreign temporary and permanent residents and a small group of native-born citizens of both European and Arab origin--numbers approximately 20,000 and is dispersed throughout the country. According to church leaders, the practicing Christian population numbers approximately 2,000 and includes an estimated 200 native-born ethnic Arab citizens who have converted to Christianity. The Catholic Church operates 5 churches, 14 private schools, and 7 cultural centers throughout the country, as well as 1 hospital in Tunis, the capital. It has approximately 1,400 practicing members, composed of temporary and permanent foreign residents and a small number of native-born citizens of European and Arab origin. In addition to holding religious services, the Catholic Church also freely organizes cultural activities and performs charitable work throughout the country. The Russian Orthodox Church has 340 practicing members and operates two churches--one in Tunis and one in Bizerte. The French Reform Church operates one church in Tunis, with a congregation of 140 primarily foreign members. The Anglican Church has approximately 50 foreign members who worship in a church in Tunis. The 30-member Greek Orthodox Church maintains 1 church each in Tunis, Sousse, and Jerba. A community of 43 Jehovah's Witnesses, of which about half are foreign residents and half are native-born citizens, also exists. Although the Government permits these Christian churches to operate freely, only the Catholic Church has formal recognition from the post-independence Government. The other churches operate under land grants signed by the Bey of Tunis in the 18th and 19th centuries, which are respected by the post- independence Government.

With 1,800 adherents split nearly equally between the capital and the island of Jerba, the Jewish community is the country's largest indigenous religious minority. The Government allows the Jewish community freedom of worship and pays the salary of the Grand Rabbi. It also partially subsidizes restoration and maintenance costs for some synagogues. Since independence in 1956, the Jewish community has operated freely under a provisional status agreement with the Government, which is to be converted to a permanent status agreement after the community chooses to hold its internal elections. The Government permits the Jewish community to operate private religious schools and allows Jewish children on the island of Jerba to split their academic day between secular public schools and private religious schools. The Government also encourages Jewish emigres to return for the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the historic El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Jerba.

The Government regards the Baha'i Faith as a heretical sect of Islam and permits its 150 adherents to practice their faith only in private. Although the Government permits Baha'is to hold meetings of their National Council in private homes, it reportedly has prohibited them from organizing local councils. The Government reportedly pressures Baha'is to eschew organized religious activities.

In general the Government does not permit Christian groups to establish new churches, and proselytizing is viewed as an act against the public order. Foreign missionary organizations and groups do not operate in the country. Authorities ask foreigners suspected of proselytizing to depart the country and do not permit them to return. There were no reported cases of official action against persons suspected of proselytizing during the period covered by this report.

Islamic religious education is mandatory in public schools, but the religious curriculum for secondary school students also includes the history of Judaism and Christianity. The Zeitouna Koranic School is part of the Government's national university system.

Both religious and secular nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) are governed by the same law and administrative regulations on association that impose some restrictions on freedom of assembly. For example, all NGO's are required to notify the Government of meetings to be held in public spaces at least 3 days in advance and to submit lists of all meeting participants to the Ministry of Interior. There were credible reports that two Christian religious organizations did not attempt to register because they believed that their applications would be rejected, although they were able to function freely under the auspices of their respective churches. Neither group believed that it was a victim of religious discrimination. A third group, composed of foreign Christians mostly from Sweden and the United Kingdom, is active in providing medical and social services in the city of Kasserine in the west. Despite its ambiguous legal status, this group (with 15 to 20 members) reports that it has been free to pursue its social and medical work without interference and states that it does not believe that it has been subject to religious discrimination.

Religious groups are subjected to the same restrictions on freedom of speech and the press as secular groups. Primary among these restrictions is "depot legal," the requirement that printers and publishers provide copies of all publications to the Chief Prosecutor, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Culture prior to publication. Similarly, distributors must deposit copies of publications printed abroad with the Chief Prosecutor and various ministries prior to their public release. Although Christian groups reported that they were able to distribute previously-approved religious publications in European languages without difficulty, they claimed that the Government generally did not approve either publication or distribution of Arabic-language Christian material. Moreover, authorized distribution of religious publications was limited to existing religious communities, because the Government views public distribution of both religious and secular documents as a threat to the public order and hence an illegal act.

The Government promotes interfaith understanding by sponsoring regular conferences and seminars on religious tolerance and by facilitating and promoting the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba Synagogue.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were credible reports that one Arab Christian citizen was beaten, held in police custody for 5 days, and subjected to periodic harassment by police officials throughout 1998 because of his religious beliefs and practices. Other credible sources reported that police officials questioned and searched the home of another recent Arab convert to Christianity in December 1998. According to human rights lawyers, the Government regularly questioned Muslims who were observed praying frequently in mosques. There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who have been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Amicable relations exist among all religious communities.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy maintains good relations with leaders of majority and minority religious groups throughout the country, and the Ambassador and other embassy officials met regularly with Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Baha'i religious leaders throughout the period covered by this report. In May 1998, the Ambassador traveled outside Tunis to meet with minority religious groups, and one embassy officer attended the 1998 Jewish pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba synagogue. Embassy representatives privately discussed religious freedom issues with government officials in June and September 1998 and again in April 1999. The Department of State delivered a private demarche on alleged harassment of the Baha'i community in June 1998, which appears to have resulted in greater government tolerance of Baha'i activities. Embassy officers have participated in government-sponsored conferences on religious tolerance.

Since 1997 the United States Information Service (USIS) has sent Tunisian professors to American universities to attend United States Information Agency-sponsored seminars on the topic of religion in America. The program includes sessions on the separation of church and state, religious pluralism, women and religion, religion and ethnicity (including Islam in America), religious dissent, religious tolerance, secular education, and religious considerations in American foreign policy. In addition, the 1998 participant in the program led a roundtable discussion on religion in America in October at USIS to share what he had learned during the program. The audience for this roundtable was drawn from various campuses in the United States.

Sources: U.S. State Department - Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor