Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Not much information is available about Tunisia’s Christian population. Nowadays, this religious minority is composed mainly of three communities: Christian Tunisians descended from European migrants and European Christians who are permanent resident of Tunisia; Christian sub-Saharan migrants; and formerly Muslim Tunisians who have converted to Christianity. In 2007, the Tunisian government, in its submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), stated that there were only around 2,000 Christians in Tunisia. However, estimates by NGOs suggest that the total community is around 5,000-6,000, with the large majority comprised of Catholics. If foreign nationals residing in Tunisia and practicing Christianity are also included, the total is closer to 25,000, most of whom are of sub-Saharan origin.
Djerba also hosts a Christian neighbourhood that was once home to a large number of Maltese and Italian traders who often travelled to the island. There were as many as 17,000 people living there until the early 1930s, but now only a few thousand remain. The neighbourhood hosts an ancient church, built by Maltese fishers and later abandoned, that is now used as a sport centre by the municipality.
In 1856 there were approximately 12,000 Christians in Tunis. As most of them were European, they were associated more closely in the minds of the general population with colonialism than other minorities such as Jewish community.
The perception by many that Christians were connected to colonialism had significant implications for the community after Tunisia achieved independence in 1956. While Bourguiba made efforts to ensure Jewish citizens were able to practice their faith freely, Christians experienced a range of restrictions formalised in the Modus Vivendi agreement brokered by the Catholic Church in 1964 with the Tunisian government, such as prohibitions on the construction of new churches and the ringing of bells.
While restrictions remain in place to this day, there are signs that the community is able to enjoy greater visibility since the 2011 revolution. On 15 August 2018, for example, the Festa della Madonna was celebrated for the second time in La Goulette, near Tunis, after decades in which it was not possible. The ceremony followed the Catholic rite and was mostly recited in French, with some parts in Italian. At the end of a speech on coexistence in Tunisia, the sub-Saharan African congregation launched into songs and danced.
Some civil society organizations, such as the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities, report that there is nowadays a growing number of formerly Muslim Tunisians who have converted to Christianity. While conversion is not criminalized under Tunisian law, the social taboos are so widespread that these groups generally prefer to remain hidden. Many face ostracization and even violence from their own families due to the stigma surrounding conversion.
Converts may also be harassed by security forces and officials. In November 2016, nine young Christian converts were stopped in Gafsa by anti-terrorist forces and threatened if they did not renounce their faith. The security agents claimed they were targeted not on account of their religion but due to suspicious behaviour.
Updated October 2020
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