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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, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion. The Government does not permit the establishment of political parties on the basis of religion, prohibits proselytizing, and restricts the wearing of hijab (a type of headscarf worn by some Muslim women) in offices, on the street, and at certain public gatherings.

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

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 63,170 square miles, and its population is approximately 10 million. Approximately 99 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). 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 approximately 150 members of the Baha'i Faith.

The Christian community, composed of foreign residents and a small group of native-born citizens of European or Arab descent, numbers approximately 25,000 and is dispersed throughout the country. According to church leaders, the practicing Christian population is approximately 2,000 and includes a few hundred native-born ethnic Arab citizens who have converted to Christianity. According to the Diocese of Tunis, the Catholic Church now operates 11 churches, 9 schools, several libraries, and 2 clinics. There are approximately 500 practicing Catholics. In addition to holding religious services, the Catholic Church also freely organizes cultural activities and performs charitable work throughout the country. There is one Protestant church, located in Tunis, with a few hundred members. Catholic and Protestant religious services also are held in a few other locations, such as private residences, on an occasional basis. The Russian Orthodox Church has approximately 100 practicing members and operates a church in Tunis and another in Bizerte. The French Reform Church operates a church in Tunis, with a congregation of 140 primarily foreign members. The Anglican Church has a church in Tunis with a few hundred predominantly foreign members. There is a small Seventh-day Adventist community with approximately 50 members. The 30-member Greek Orthodox Church maintains 3 churches (in Tunis, Sousse, and Djerba). There are also 50 members of Jehovah's Witnesses, of which approximately half are foreign residents and half are native-born citizens. The Government also allowed a small number of religious charitable nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to operate and provide social services.

Judaism is the country's second largest indigenous religion with approximately 1,500 members. One-third lives in and around the capital and is descended predominantly from Italian and 16th-century Spanish immigrants. The remainder lives on the island of Djerba where the Jewish community dates back 2,500 years.

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

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 restricts the wearing of hijab. The Constitution declares that Islam is the official state religion and stipulates that the President must be a Muslim.

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, upon completion, they become the property of the Government. The Government also partially subsidizes the Jewish community.

The following religious holidays are considered national holidays: Aid El-Kebir, Ras Al-Am El-Hejri, Mouled, and Aid Essighir. The Government also recognizes the sanctity of non-Muslim religious holidays.

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 recognized formally only the Catholic Church, via a 1964 concordat with the Holy See. 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 registration of a Jewish religious organization in Djerba; however, the group continues to operate and perform religious activities and charitable work unhindered.

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 president of Provisional Committee of the Jewish community and his board of governors submitted registration papers to the Ministry of Interior for permanent registration as the Association of the Jewish Community of Tunisia. Although the Government has yet to register the new association, the president and board of governors continue to meet weekly. During the period covered by this report, the Government permitted the association to operate and perform religious activities and charity work unhindered.

The Government permits the Jewish community to operate private religious schools and allows Jewish children on the island of Djerba 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 Djerba.

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 on Djerba.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Although the Government generally respects the right to practice religion freely, there were some restrictions. 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 permits its adherents to practice their faith only in private. The Government permits Baha'is to hold meetings of their national council in private homes, but it prohibits them from organizing local councils. The Ministry of Interior periodically met with prominent Baha'is to discuss their activities, and Baha'i leaders said that, as a result, their community's relationship with the Government improved during the period covered by this report.

Although there have been reports of cases in which the Government punished individuals who converted to another faith from Islam by denying them a passport, no confirmed cases occurred during the period covered by this report. No statutory prohibitions against conversion exist; however, the Government uses bureaucratic hurdles to dissuade potential converts. In previous years, the Government denied converts the right to vote and serve in the military, among other rights.

The Government does not permit the establishment of political parties on the basis of religion, and it uses this prohibition to refuse to register the Islamist party An-Nahdha and to prosecute suspected party members. The Government maintains tight surveillance over Islamists. The Government revoked the identity cards of an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Islamists, which among other consequences prevents them from being employed legally. The Government refused to issue passports to Islamists. In several cases, including during the period covered by this report, the Government seized the passport of a close relative of an Islamic activist, allegedly for the sole reason that the person was related to an Islamic activist. The Government maintained that only the courts possess the power to revoke passports; however, reports indicate that the Government rarely observed this separation of powers in politically sensitive cases.

The Government does not permit Christian groups to establish new churches, and proselytizing is viewed as an illegal act against public order. Foreign missionary organizations and groups are active; however, they are not permitted to proselytize. Theoretically, authorities deport foreigners suspected of proselytizing and do not permit them to return, but there were reports that the Government prefers not to renew the visas of suspected missionaries or to pressure their employers not to extend their contracts. However, there were no reported cases of official action against persons suspected of proselytizing during the period covered by this report.

Both religious and secular 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.

Religious groups are subjected to the same restrictions on freedom of speech and the press as secular groups. Primary among these restrictions is "dépôt légal," 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.

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 allowed only established churches to distribute religious publications to parishioners. It considered other groups' distribution of religious documents to be an illegal "threat to public order."

The Government forbids the wearing of hijab in government offices, and there were reports of police requiring women to remove their hijabs in offices, on the street, and at certain public gatherings. However, some female government employees wore the hijab in their offices. The Government characterized the hijab as a "garment of foreign origin having a partisan connotation" and prohibits its use in public institutions to "observe impartiality required of officials in their professional relations with others." There also were reports that police sometimes detained men with beards whom the Government considered Islamic and compelled them to shave off their beards.

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.

Customary law based on Shari'a forbids Muslim women from marrying outside their religion. Marriages of Muslim women to non-Muslim men abroad are considered common law 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 considers to be Muslim) cannot inherit from their mothers.

Civil law is codified; however, judges are known to override codified family or inheritance laws if their interpretation of Shari'a contradicts it. For example, codified laws provide women with 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 he must grant permission for the children to travel. In addition the Government routinely prevents Christian U.S. citizen mothers from taking their U.S. citizen children back to the United States without the express agreement of the children's Muslim citizen fathers. The U.S. Embassy was attempting to resolve three such cases during the period covered by this report.

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.

There were reports that the Government did not allow married couples to register the birth of their children and receive birth certificates if the mother was Christian and the father was Muslim and the parents tried to give their children non-Muslim names.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

During the period covered by this report, credible sources estimated that approximately 600 persons were serving prison sentences because of their membership in the illegal Islamist group An-Nahdha or for their alleged Islamist sympathies; however, there were no reports of cases in which the Government arrested or detained persons based solely on their religious beliefs.

According to human rights lawyers, the Government regularly questioned Muslims who were observed praying frequently in mosques. 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 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.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report. However, in 2002, a terrorist attack outside the historic El-Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba killed 21 persons and damaged the interior of the synagogue. Two weeks before the annual El-Ghriba pilgrimage (See Section II), the driver of a truck transporting liquefied flammable gas detonated an explosive device while the truck stood at the synagogue's compound wall. The explosion killed 17 tourists and 4 citizens, including the driver. An Islamic group claiming Al-Qaeda sympathies announced responsibility for the attack.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

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

There were unconfirmed reports of a few incidents of vandalism directed against the property of members of the Jewish community.

There is great societal pressure against Muslim conversion to other religions, and conversion from Islam is relatively rare. Muslims who 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 evidence suggests that the number of young middle class urban women choosing to wear the hijab continued to rise 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 as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

The U.S. Embassy maintains good relations with leaders of majority and minority religious groups throughout the country, and the U.S. Ambassador and other Embassy officials met regularly with Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Baha'i religious leaders throughout the period covered by this report. The Embassy fostered regular exchanges that included components designed to highlight U.S. traditions of religious tolerance and pluralism. The Embassy regularly disseminated the publication "Muslim Life in America," and Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues with government officials and members of civil society on various occasions during the year. The Embassy helped organize a conference on religious tolerance and encouraged the development of academic studies in comparative religions.

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