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Reports on Religious Freedom: Tunisia


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, there were some restrictions and abuses.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. The Government does not permit the establishment of political parties on the basis of Islam, prohibits proselytizing, and partially limits the religious freedom of Baha'is.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country's land area is 63,170 square miles and the vast majority of its population of 9.2 million is nominally Muslim. There is no reliable data on the number of practicing Muslims. There is a small indigenous Sufi Muslim community but no statistics regarding its size. Reliable sources report that many Sufis left the country shortly after independence when their religious buildings and land reverted to the Government (as did those of Orthodox Islamic foundations), leaving them no place to worship. Although the Sufi community is small, its tradition of mysticism permeates the practice of Islam throughout the country. During annual Ramadan festivals, Sufis provide public cultural entertainment with whirling dervish dances.

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 100 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 one 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.

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 Jewish community on the island of Jerba dates back 2,500 years. There are also 150 members of the Baha'i Faith.

There is no information available regarding the number of atheists in the country.

Foreign missionary organizations and groups do not operate in the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

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 the establishment of political parties based on religion, prohibits proselytizing, and partially limits the religious freedom of Baha'is. The Constitution stipulates that the President of the Republic must be a Muslim.

The Government recognizes all Christian and Jewish religious organizations that were established before independence in 1956. Although the Government permits Christian churches to operate freely, only the Catholic Church has formal recognition from the postindependence 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 Government. During the period covered by this report, the Government refused recognition of a Jewish religious organization in Jerba; however, the group has been permitted to operate, and it performs religious activities and charity work unhindered.

The Muslim holidays of Aid El-Kebir, Ras Al-Am El-Hejri, Mouled, and Aid Essighir are observed as national holidays; there is no reported adverse effect on other religious groups related to such observance.

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.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

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 Government also partially subsidizes the Jewish community.

The Government does not permit the establishment of political parties on the basis of religion, and uses this prohibition to refuse recognition of the An-Nahda party and to prosecute suspected party members on the grounds of membership in an illegal organization. The Government maintains tight surveillance over Islamists and members of the Islamic fundamentalist community. The Government has revoked the identity cards of an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Islamists and fundamentalists, which prevents them from being employed legally, attending court hearings, or using public telephones or faxes. According to reliable sources, the Government has refused to issue passports to Islamists and fundamentalists. The Government forbids the wearing of hijab (traditional headscarves worn by Islamist and Islamic fundamentalist women) in government offices.

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. In October 1999, the provisional Jewish community elected a new board of directors, its first since independence in 1956, but continues to await approval from the governor of Tunis. Once approval is obtained from the governor, which originally was expected to be only a formality, the committee is expected to receive permanent status. The acting board has changed its name to the Jewish Committee of Tunisia. 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 émigrés to return for the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the historic El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Jerba. However, during the period covered by this report, the Government refused recognition of a Jewish religious organization in Jerba, although the group has been permitted to operate and perform religious activities and charity work unhindered.

The Government regards the Baha'i Faith as a heretical sect of Islam and permits its 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. There are credible reports that police periodically call in prominent Baha'is for questioning. The Government also unofficially denied Baha'i requests during the period covered by this report for permission to elect local assemblies. The Government also does not permit Baha'is to accept a declaration of faith from persons who wish to convert to the Baha'i Faith. There were credible reports that four members of the Baha'i Faith were interrogated by Ministry of Interior officials in 1999 and pressed to sign a statement that they would not practice their religion and would not hold meetings in their homes.

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; however, there were reports that materials distributed by Christian missionaries in Sfax were confiscated from local secondary students.

There were reports of cases during the period covered by this report in which the Government punished individuals who converted to another faith from Islam by denying them the ability to obtain a passport, to vote, and to enlist in the military, among other rights.

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. During the period covered by this report, 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.

Muslim women are not permitted to marry outside their religion. Marriages of Muslim women to non-Muslim men abroad are considered common-law, which are prohibited and thus void when the couple returns to the country. Non-Muslim women who marry Muslim men are not permitted to inherit from their husbands, nor may the husbands and any children (who are considered to be Muslim) from the marriage inherit from the non-Muslim wife.

Although civil law is codified, judges are known to override codified law with their interpretation of Shari'a (Islamic law) if codified law contradicts it. For example, codified laws provide women with the legal right to have custody over minor children; however, judges have refused to grant women permission to leave the country with minor children, holding that Shari'a appoints the father as the head of the family who must grant children permission to travel. In 1999 one human rights activist reported that Ministry of Interior officials refused to issue her minor son a passport because the child's father, who was then jailed, was not present to give permission.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

During the period covered by this report, credible sources estimate as many as 1,000 persons were serving prison sentences because of their membership in the illegal Islamist group An-Nadha or for their alleged Islamist sympathies; however, there were no reports of cases in which it was clear that persons were arrested or detained based solely on their religious beliefs.

During the period covered by this report, the Government tried and convicted numerous suspected members of the Islamist community on charges of belonging to an illegal organization. For example, Mehdi Zoughah was convicted in February 2001 of belonging to an illegal organization for purportedly holding a meeting with An-Nahda leader Salah Kerker in Marseille, France, in the early 1990s. Zoughah was convicted on the basis of a single witness whom the Government could not produce in court. Haroun M'barak was convicted in March 2001 of belonging to an illegal organization, An-Nahda, on the basis of a statement by a witness that had been retracted. On August 30, 2000, An-Nahda prisoner Taoufik Chaieb was released from jail after he held a 51-day hunger strike. Presiding judges in trials of Islamists routinely refuse to investigate claims by defendants that their confessions were extracted under torture.

Sources report that police awaken suspected Islamists in the night and bring them to police headquarters for interrogation. Human rights activists allege that the Government subjected the family members of Islamist activists to arbitrary arrest, reportedly utilizing charges of "association with criminal elements" to punish family members for the actions of the activists.

According to human rights lawyers, the Government regularly questioned Muslims who were observed praying frequently in mosques. Reliable sources report that the authorities instruct imams to espouse government social and economic programs during prayer times in Mosques.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including 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 III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

There were no incidents of religiously motivated violence. However, there is great societal pressure for Muslims not to convert to other religions, and conversion from Islam is relatively rare. Muslims who do convert may face social ostracism for converting. There is some conversion among individuals in the Christian and Jewish communities.

Section IV. 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. Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues with government officials on various occasions during the year.

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