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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 they have therefore embarked on efforts to register as a civil society organization.
In particular, the community had three 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 (with the justification that civil associations are not supposed to be religious in nature, even though several Muslim civil associations exist). They went to the administrative tribunal to appeal this decision and 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. 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.
Finally in 2020, the community received a positive judgement on the first verdict from the administrative tribunal to register as a civil society organization UDD (Unité dans la Diversité), without mention of Baha’ism in their name.
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. Not being recognised means not being able to 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.
In March 2021, they filed a complaint to the Republic’s Prosecutor before the Court of First Instance of Tunis, against the Prime Minister, the Minister of Religious Affairs, the Mufti of the Republic and the Government’s General Secretary after official reports and correspondence were issued refusing to publish the declaration of establishing the organisation. The Baha’i Association of Tunisia received a preliminary judgement in their favour by the Administrative Tribunal, which was appealed by the President of the government in the first judgement. According to the complaint by the Baha’i Association, the government’s appeal contained accusations that might seriously threaten the lives of the members of the Association. This was due to the fact that these documents contained arguments from the 2008 fatwa mentioned above by the Mufti of the Republic and by the Minister of Religious Affairs, as well as an advisory opinion from the International Islamic Jurisprudence Institution, which contained accusations of blasphemy/ non-belief (tafkir) against members of the Association because of their Bahá’í religion.
Updated November 2021
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