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Reports on Religious Freedom: Tunisia


The Constitution provides for the free exercise of religions that do not disturb the public order, and the Government generally respects this right; however, there were some restrictions and abuses. The Constitution declares that Islam is the official state religion.

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 religion, prohibits proselytizing, and partially limits the religious freedom of members of the Baha'i Faith.

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 has a total area of 63,170 square miles and its population is approximately 10 million. Ninety eight percent of the population is nominally Muslim. There is no reliable data on the number of practicing Muslims. There is a small indigenous Sufi Muslim community; however, there are 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 by performing religious dances. There are also 150 members of the Baha'i Faith.

The nominal Christian community, composed of foreign residents and a small group of native-born citizens of European and/or Arab descent, numbers approximately 20,000 and is dispersed throughout the country. According to church leaders, the practicing Christian population is approximately 1,000 and includes an estimated 200 native-born ethnic Arab citizens who have converted to Christianity. The Catholic Church operates 7 churches, 6 private schools, and 6 cultural centers/libraries throughout the country, as well as 1 hospital in Tunis, the capital. There are approximately 400 practicing Catholics. Most are foreign residents but a small number are native-born citizens of European and/or Arab descent. 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 approximately 100 practicing members and operates 1 church in Tunis and another in Bizerte. The French Reform Church operates 1 church in Tunis, with a congregation of 140 primarily foreign members. The Anglican Church has a church in Tunis with approximately 70 foreign members. The 30-member Greek Orthodox Church maintains 3 churches (in Tunis, Sousse, and Jerba). There are also 50 members of Jehovah's Witnesses, of which approximately half are foreign residents and half are native-born citizens.

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.

Foreign missionary organizations and groups function; however, they are not permitted to proselytize in the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for the free exercise of religions that do not disturb the public order, and the Government generally respects this right; however, it does not permit the establishment of political parties based on religion, forbids proselytizing, and partially limits the religious freedom of Baha'is. The Constitution declares that Islam is the official state religion and 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, it has only formally recognized the Catholic Church, via a 1964 concordat with the Holy See. Some observers consider this agreement to be statutory recognition of the Christian religion. In addition to authorizing 14 churches "serving all sects" of the country, the Government recognizes land grants signed by the Bey of Tunis in the 18th and 19th centuries that allow other churches to operate. The Government has not acted on a request for recognition of a Jewish religious organization in Jerba; however, the group is permitted to operate and it performs religious activities and charitable work unhindered.

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.

The following religious holidays are considered national holidays: Aid El-Kebir, Ras Al-Am El-Hejri, Mouled, and Aid Essighir.

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; however, they then 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 illegal Islamist An-Nahdha Party and to prosecute suspected party members. The Government maintains tight surveillance over Islamists and members of the Islamic fundamentalist community. The Government 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 refused to issue passports to Islamists and fundamentalists and has confiscated the passports of a small number of Tunisian converts to Christianity. In at least one case the Government seized the passport of a close relative of an Islamic activist, allegedly for the sole reason that they were related. The Government maintained that only the courts possess the power to revoke passports under public laws; however, reports indicate that the Government rarely observed this separation of powers in politically sensitive religious cases.

The Government forbids the wearing of hijab (headscarves traditionally worn by Islamist and Islamic fundamentalist women) in government offices; however, a few female government employees were seen wearing the hijab in their offices. The Government characterizes the hijab as a "garment of foreign origin having a partisan connotation" and prohibits its use in public institutions in order to "observe impartiality required of officials in their professional relations with others." There were some reports of police requiring women to remove their hijabs in offices, on the street, and at certain public gatherings.

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 1999, the provisional Jewish community elected a new board of directors, its first since independence in 1956; however, the board has not met while it awaits approval from the governor of Tunis. Once the governor approves the election, which originally was expected to be only a formality, the board (now referred to as the Jewish Committee of Tunisia) is expected to receive permanent status. The governor had not granted approval by the end of the period covered by this report, although approval remains expected. 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 continued to refuse recognition to a Jewish religious organization in Jerba, although the group has been permitted to operate and perform religious activities and charity work unhindered.

Baha'is regard their faith as a religion distinct from Islam. However, the Government regards the Baha'i Faith as a heretical sect of Islam and only permits its adherents to practice their faith in private. The Government permits Baha'is to hold meetings of their National Council in private homes but prohibits 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; however, the number of such incidents decreased during the period covered by this report. The Government also unofficially denied the Baha'i request for permission to elect local assemblies during the period covered by this report. The Government also does not permit Baha'is to accept a declaration of faith from persons who wish to convert.

In general the Government does not permit Christian groups to establish new churches, and proselytizing is viewed as an act against public order. Foreign missionary organizations and groups are active; however, they are not permitted to proselytize. Authorities deport foreigners suspected of proselytizing 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, in 2001, there were reports that materials distributed by Christian missionaries in Sfax were confiscated from local secondary students.

During the period covered by this report, there were reports of cases in which the Government punished individuals who converted to another faith from Islam by denying them the ability to obtain a passport. In previous years the Government denied converts the right to vote and serve 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 (NGOs) are governed by the same legal and administrative regulations that impose some restrictions on freedom of assembly. For example, all NGOs 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. One 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 is free to pursue its social and medical work without interference and states that it does not believe that it is 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," which requires that printers and publishers provide copies of all publications to Ministry of Interior censors prior to publication. For publications printed abroad, distributors must deposit copies with the Chief Prosecutor and other ministries prior to their public release. In 2001 the Chamber of Deputies approved several changes to the Press Code, including the designation of the Ministry of Human Rights, Communications, and Relations with the Chamber of Deputies as the sole central censorship office.

Although Christian groups reported that they were able to distribute previously approved religious publications in European languages without difficulty, they said the Government generally did not grant permission to publish and distribute Arabic-language Christian texts. Moreover, the Government only allowed sanctioned religious communities to distribute religious publications. It considered other groups' distribution of religious documents to be an illegal "threat to public order."

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. Muslim men and non-Muslim women who are married may not inherit from each other, and children from those marriages (all of whom the Government considered to be Muslim) cannot inherit from their mothers. Civil law is codified; however, judges are known to override codified law if their interpretation of Shari'a (Islamic law) contradicts it. For example, codified laws provide women with the legal right to have custody over their minor children; however, judges have refused to grant women permission to leave the country with them, holding that Shari'a appoints the father as the head of the family and that he must grant permission for the children to travel.

Generally, Shari'a based interpretation of civil law is applied only in some family cases. Some families avoid the effects of Shari'a on inheritance by executing sales contracts between parents and children to ensure that sons and daughters receive equal shares of property.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

During the period covered by this report, credible sources estimate that approximately 500 persons were serving prison sentences because of their membership in the illegal Islamist group An-Nahdha or for their alleged Islamist sympathies. Other sources claim that the number of those prisoners is as low as 100 or as high as 1,000; however, there were no reports of cases in which it was clear that persons were arrested or detained based solely on their religious beliefs. The Government claims An-Nahdha is a terrorist organization and has accused it of plotting the overthrow of the Government in the early 1990s. A credible source reported that high-ranking An-Nahdha leaders have been held in solitary confinement since 1991.

The Government maintained that "the rights of prisoners are carefully protected in the country and the law provides both disciplinary measures and judicial sanctions for government officials who, in the exercise of their duties, violate the physical integrity of individuals"; however, independent reports indicated the contrary and suggest that Ministry of Interior officials routinely torture politically sensitive prisoners. Presiding judges in trials of Islamists routinely refuse to investigate claims by defendants that their confessions were extracted under torture.

The Government also continued to place Islamists under administrative control. For example, Hedi Bejaoui has been under administrative control since 1990. Bejaoui was arrested and released in 1990 for membership in An-Nahdha. In May 2001 he began a hunger strike that lasted 6 weeks to protest his administrative control and the seizure of his passport. Bejaoui attempted to travel abroad for medical treatment after the authorities took his medical insurance card. On March 23, Abdelouahab Boussaa, sentenced in 1991 to 16 years imprisonment for membership to An-Nahdha, died in detention following a 4-month hunger strike protesting his conditions in detention. Two weeks later Lakhdar Essdiri died, possibly from medical neglect, while serving a 28-year sentence for An-Nahdha activities.

Sources also 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 and other restrictions, reportedly utilizing charges of "association with criminal elements" to punish family members. For example, one female medical doctor claims that she has been unemployed since 1997 because police have pressured hospitals not to hire her because her husband was convicted of membership in An-Nahdha. One man claimed that for 8 years, the Government refused to issue him a passport because his brother was prosecuted for membership in An-Nahdha.

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. Sources indicated that an imam in the city of Kairouan issued a fatwa against former Education Minister and human rights activist Mohamed Charfi in June 2002. The reasons for such an edict are unclear but Charfi is a prominent activist and potential government opponent and many in civil society circles believe the edict was aimed at intimidating him.

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 refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship between religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, there were incidents of religiously motivated violence. In March 2002, a synagogue in the Tunis suburb of La Marsa was broken into and vandalized. In April 2002, a synagogue in Sfax, a southern commercial city also was vandalized. No injuries were reported and damage at each of the synagogues was minor. The Government responded by increasing security at both sites.

In April 2002, a terrorist attack outside the historic El-Ghriba synagogue on the island of Jerba killed 21 persons and damaged the interior of the synagogue. Two weeks before the annual El-Ghriba pilgrimage (See Section I), the driver of a truck transporting liquid gas detonated an explosive device while the truck stood at the Synagogue's compound wall. The explosion killed 17 tourists and 4 Tunisians, including the driver. The Government initially claimed that the explosion was an accident; however, on April 22, after German authorities became involved in the investigation, it admitted that the incident was an attack. The Government provided increased security for the synagogue and encouraged pilgrims and tourists to visit El-Ghriba despite the attack.

There is great societal pressure against Muslim conversion 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.

Despite a history of social pressure by middle and upper class secularists to discourage women from wearing the hijab, anecdotal suggests that the number of young middle class urban Tunisian women choosing to wear the hijab rose during the period covered by this report. Notably, many observers consider this trend to be less a sign of increasing religiosity among young citizens than a reaction to perceived increasing pressure from modernity on traditional Arab/Muslim culture.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

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

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