Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Though likely numbering in their hundreds, the exact number of Bahá’í in Tunisia is unknown. Since the faith is not recognized by the state, official figures are not available and community representatives themselves are reluctant to produce estimates, given the fact that many remain unknown.
The lack of recognition also leads to the absence of a gathering place and a higher degree of discrimination compared to Tunisian Jews and Christians. For these reasons, it is difficult for Bahá’í to engage with each other, but Facebook appears to be the most widely used platform.
It is believed that the Bahá’í faith was introduced to Tunisia in 1921 by Mohieddine Kurdi. Bahá’í do not have clergy but are organized in local and national spiritual assemblies composed of nine worshippers (both male and female), a sacred number in the Bahá’í faith.
Nevertheless, the community has reported on-going harassment and discrimination. In 2008, a fatwa was issued by the Tunisian Mufti against the Bahá’í faith, with lasting implications for the community. As their faith is not recognized, Bahá’í are unable to register as a religious community, and their efforts to register as a civil society organization have so far have been rejected.
In particular, the community has three pending cases. In 2012, the Bahá’í Association of Tunisia tried to register as a civil association advocating for non-discrimination, equality and unity. Their request was refused by the Prime Minister because of the inclusion of ‘Bahá’í’ in the name. They went to the administrative tribunal to appeal this decision but are still waiting for a verdict. They then started procedures for the same case before the Tribunal of First Instance. Their case was rejected there on the basis that the decision rests with the Prime Minister. In late 2017, the community sent a letter to the President of the Republic, the President of Parliament and the Prime Minister, denouncing the discrimination the community faces and asking for official recognition of their faith, in particular the National Spiritual Assembly. So far, they have not received a reply. This submission followed an incident in September 2017 when a 20- year-old Bahá’í was taken from his home near Monastir by police and questioned for several hours about his religion.
Tunisian Bahá’í are active in civil society and work within the framework of equal citizenship, organizing events focussing on coexistence. Their main demand is the right to organize and operate legally. Because they are not recognized, they cannot have a bank account, organize money collection for the community or establish facilities to educate their children according to the Bahá’í faith. The community has also petitioned the Minister of Local Affairs to establish a Bahá’í cemetery but have yet to receive a reply.
The Bahá’í marriage contract, recognized in several countries, is not recognized in Tunisia, but they can register civil marriages like all other Tunisians. Many, because they do want to operate underground, contact the municipality before their marriage and inform them that they are Bahá’í. Some municipalities then refuse to perform the civil marriage, and they then must look elsewhere until they find one that is willing to perform the act. By now, they have identified the municipalities which are more open to the community. With regards to inheritance, they follow Tunisian law like other citizens, but they can make private contracts if they wish to apportion equal shares to their male and female children, as many Muslims in Tunisia also do.
Updated October 2020
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