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Tunisia PDF Print E-mail
Religious Freedom Ranking
3 out of 5 stars: Needs Improvement

Tunisia was the first nation to experience a revolution against political corruption in the Middle East, later known as the “Arab Spring.”  The president resigned promptly in January 2011, avoiding the bloodshed that has plagued other nations in the region.  In recent elections the Islamic party, Nahda, won over 40 percent of the seats in the national constituent assembly that will determine the new Constitution. Yet as a modern, moderate nation that has in the past been recognized as forward looking and peaceful, the populace is guarded in its optimism.

Tunisia has a population of 8.7 million and is governed by a parliamentary democracy with its first principle being an Islamic nation, requiring that the president be a Muslim. The government permits the practice of other religions. Ninety-eight percent of the population is Muslim, mostly Sunni, with the other two percent including Shi’a Muslims, Christians, Jews and Baha’is. Eighty-eight percent of Christians are Roman Catholic with the remainder being Protestant, Russian Orthodox, French Reformist, Anglican, Seventh-day Adventist, Greek Orthodox, and Jehovah's Witnesses.  The Christian community, estimated at about 2,000, is comprised mostly of foreigners and holds church services and operates a small number of schools. It regards the Baha’i faith as a heretical sect of Islam and its adherents are permitted to practice their faith only in private.

The government controls mosques, appoints the personnel, and pays the salaries of the prayer leaders. The Jewish community has had a presence in the area, specifically on the Island of Djerba and the neighboring town of Zarzis, for over 2,500 years. The Jewish community is assured freedom of worship with 1,300 adherents, and is the largest indigenous religious minority. The government pays the salary of the Grand Rabbi, provides security for all synagogues and partially subsidizes the restoration and maintenance costs for some.  Several Jewish schools exist. Government employees, the majority of whom are Muslims, maintain the Jewish cemetery in Tunis.

Two secondary schools have Muslim and Jewish students studying together, with the exception being that Jewish students are allowed to attend Jewish school on Saturdays (their Sabbath) while Muslim students study Islam. With the historical teaching of Islam in schools, some Christian and Jewish history is taught as well.

Proselytizing is considered an “act against the public order.” Foreigners suspected of this practice are asked to leave the country and not allowed to return.  The government limits the wearing of "sectarian dress" for both men and women. Some human rights groups reported some instances of police harassment of women wearing the hijab (women's headscarf) and men with traditional Islamic dress and beards. There were also some reports of societal abuse based on religious affiliation. Conversion is not illegal but some converts from Islam to other religions have faced social ostracism and bureaucratic blocks.

There were some anti-Israel cartoons published depicting derogatory caricatures of Jews. Tunisia hosted a visit by the Pope in April 2011, in a gesture toward tolerance and ecumenism.

Religious freedom and women: Tunisia has the most beneficial personal status law or code for women in all the Arab/Islamic countries. Both girls and boys may not marry until they reach 18 years of age. The schools are coeducational. No woman may be forced into marrying a man she does not want. Divorce laws are equitable with both men and women able to ask for the dissolution of marriage and receiving a fair share. Women may vote and run for office.

But as Shari’a law is the basis of rule, the government forbids domestic marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, unless the man converts to Islam or the marriage is performed abroad. But the government did not recognize the legality of one such marriage, and forced the couple to seek a court ruling to legitimize the marriage. Inheritance from a Muslim to non–Muslim spouse is not allowed and, while young children are given into the custody of the mother, she may not leave the country with them as Islamic law dictates that the father is the head of the family.

Politically, in the past, women held over a quarter of parliamentary seats; they now head only two of 31 ministries. Only two Tunisian women were appointed to the Transitional Government. However, in April 2011 the commission responsible for drafting Tunisia’s new electoral code ruled that there must be full gender parity on election candidate lists with alternating men and women. To date, men head each list. In the last election, out of 417 seats available, only 49 women were elected: 42 from the moderate Islamic party and 7 from the progressive liberal party. Twenty-seven percent of the seats went to women, and although the number is much lower than 50 percent, women’s participation in government exceeds most nations including the US.

According to the newly established League of Tunisian Women Voters (LTWV), much education is needed to encourage women to exercise their rights and express their voices in the future of their government. The LTWV also says it has received promises from the Nahda party that it will not try to change the personal status law of women. The future will show the truth of those promises.

Religious violence: There have been no reports of religiously motivated violence in the past year. Due to the swift departure of the president, the demonstrations did not escalate into violence with the possibility of religious clashes.


 2011 US State Department International Religious Freedom Report on Tunisia

 Tunisia – New World Encyclopedia

 Tunisia - Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 September 2012 19:27