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Tunisia

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Tunisia has some fine church buildings, but many converts from Islam have to worship in secret
Habib M’henni / CC BY-SA 3.0

On 26 January 2014, the Tunisian parliament adopted a new constitution that guarantees freedom of worship and enshrines the equality of men and women. The document was hailed as a success for democracy and the principles of consensus and compromise after months of contention between Islamist and secular forces. The text was agreed after the then governing Islamist Ennahda party granted a number of concessions, including the dropping of references to Islamic law. The new constitution describes Islam as the religion of the state but not its source of legislation.

The new constitution should give hope to the very small Christian community and other minorities in Tunisia. It is a marked change from the initial “Arab Spring” aftermath, when Tunisia, where the revolutionary movement began, moved in an increasingly Islamist direction. Ennahda, the main Islamist party, won both the presidential and the parliamentary elections, and the draft constitution initially identified sharia as “the principal source of legislation” and limited religious freedom and other key rights. Islamist leaders were putting out anti-Christian messages, and their supporters were harassing churches. A self-appointed religious police was also given legal status.

 But Tunisia is traditionally among the most secular and progressive of the Arab nations, and many legislators remained committed to this tradition. So the government found itself under pressure after the assassination of two opposition politicians sparked months of mass protests. The powerful trade union association, which has the power to bring the country to a standstill, forced Ennahda’s leaders to resign and hand over to a non-partisan, caretaker administration ahead of new elections. It is thought that the Tunisian opposition was emboldened by the toppling of the Islamist regime in Egypt in July 2013 after a mass uprising there.

Until the 7th century AD Christianity was widespread throughout the region of today’s Tunisia. It produced famous Christian thinkers and leaders such as Tertullian and Cyprian. But five centuries later, after Arab tribes had conquered the land and established themselves as rulers, Christianity was extinguished. Today there are only a few hundred indigenous believers, all of them converts from Islam or the children of converts, alongside a rather larger population of expatriate Christians, in a country that is more than 99% Muslim. In general churches are allowed to operate without harassment, but evangelism among Muslims is forbidden, and disapproval of apostasy from Islam is so strong in society at large that many converts are secret believers.  

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