Last Updated: Monday, 29 August 2016, 14:57 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 - Tunisia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 24 September 2013
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 - Tunisia, 24 September 2013, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/526fb7293d2.html [accessed 29 August 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia opened the door to other countries in the region to change their regimes. The first free elections after the ousting of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali took place in October 2011. The moderate Islamist Ennahda party, led by Rashid El-Ghanoushi, won a majority in the National Constituent Assembly along with two smaller coalition parties.

At the time of publication, the Constitution remained in draft form. The prime minister was chosen from the Ennahda party, first Hamadi al-Jabali and then Ali Larayadeh. Some government policies have been heavily criticized, such as the apparently lenient handling of members of the radical Salafist movement who have attacked activists and intellectuals without being charged for their actions. In this context, Chokri Belaid, head of the opposition Democratic Patriots Party and a critic of Islamist parties, was assassinated in February 2013. While there have been reports of arrests, it is not yet known who committed this crime. Drafts of the Constitution raised concerns. There were demonstrations against Article 28 of the first draft, which stated that women and men's roles 'fulfil each other', while not explicitly affirming equality between the sexes. Draft Article 3 was criticized since it allowed for the criminalization of religious offences, with the risk that it would pave the way for restrictions on freedom of expression. In January 2013, HRW noted that the second draft had brought several key improvements. It did express concern, however, about draft Article 15, which gave greater weight to national legislation than to international human rights treaty obligations. The organization also worried that judicial independence was insufficiently protected. Finally, it noted that only Muslims could become president, a provision that contradicted a general equality clause.

Tunisia has small minority communities. The estimates for the size of the Berber community vary from 1 to 2 per cent of the population. There are also small Jewish, Bahá'i and other religious minority communities.

Islam is the only religion taught at public schools, but history as taught in public secondary schools also covers the history of Judaism and Christianity.

Attacks by members of the Salafist movement were an increasingly worrying tendency, especially since the authorities appeared to do little to bring the perpetrators to justice. Journalists, artists and human rights defenders were among the targets. In August, for example, a group of men attacked a festival to commemorate the international day for Jerusalem in Bizerte, north of Tunis, and at least three activists were injured. The men reportedly accused the organizers of being Shi'a Muslims.

Jews have been under pressure since the departure of the ousted President Ben Ali. There have been occasions when members of the Salafist movement have shown hostility to the Jewish community. For example, during the January visit of Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, a group of Salafists shouted, 'Kill the Jews. It is our religious duty.' The slogan was condemned by Ennahda party officials. In this context, the Tunisian Association to Support Minorities sued Sheikh Ahmad Al-Suhayli of Rades for hate speech against Jews, following a sermon that was broadcast live in November on Hannibal TV. The lawyer who represented the association argued that the sermon violated the 2011 Decree 115, which criminalizes calls for hatred. Throughout 2012, there were repeated media reports that members of Tunisia's Jewish community were expressing unease about the new political order and the impunity apparently enjoyed by religious extremists. At the same time, President Moncef Marzouki attempted to send a reassuring message when he visited the historic El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba at Passover. The visit was significant on many levels, not least since Passover in 2012 marked the tenth anniversary of a suicide bombing at the synagogue that killed 21 people. And the Jewish community received support from the authorities when an event organized by the prominent Islamist cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi was relocated from the island of Djerba to Tunis. The gathering was supposed to have been held four days before the annual Jewish hiloula (or pilgrimage) to the island during the Lag Ba'Omer holiday, and there were fears of something going wrong. The pilgrimage went ahead as planned. While 500 people came on the 2012 pilgrimage compared with 5,000 in 2010 (it was cancelled in 2011), the turn-out was still viewed positively by the community.

Jews have lived in Tunisia since Roman times. Jewish influence can be found in music, culture, names and other aspects of life in Tunisia. Their number exceeded 100,000 after the Second World War, but currently fewer than 2,000 Jews live in Tunisia, and about half of the community lives on Djerba. It is the second biggest Jewish community in the Arab world after Morocco. Debates about the community's future have been ongoing but intensified in November, after the police arrested five Tunisians in Zarzis for allegedly planning to kidnap Jews belonging to wealthy families to get a ransom.

Jews in Tunisia reportedly feel a need to maintain a low profile. For example, Jewish men generally do not wear the kippah (the Jewish male head-covering). Haim Bittan, the chief rabbi of Tunis, noted in an interview that Tunisian Jewish men wear a hat instead of the kippah. He explained, 'People might think we are Zionists and we do not want that, so we wear a hat.' There are no laws that restrict the wearing of the kippah, but the rising influence of the Salafist movement and fears that the head-covering or other Jewish symbols may be misinterpreted are the main reasons cited for being cautious. This is of course hard on practising Tunisian Jews since they feel a religious obligation to wear the kippah or other Jewish symbols. While The Economist magazine reported that the Tunisian authorities strengthened security for the spring 2013 hiloula, it noted that pro-Palestinian graffiti simultaneously appeared on government buildings in Tunis.

Nevertheless, the few Jews who remain in Tunisia are generally unwilling to leave. While Silvan Shalom, Israel's deputy prime minister, called on Tunisian Jews to leave the country in December 2011, the reaction from the community was largely negative. A BBC reporter interviewed Jacob Lelouche, who runs the last kosher restaurant in Tunisia. Lelouche expressed his opposition to leaving, since he felt safe.

Most Christians are foreigners, but there are some converted Tunisians. While it is difficult to get a comprehensive picture of this group, MRG interviewed a Tunisian Christian convert in February 2013 who described how he had felt so threatened that he had decided to leave the country. The Tunisian Association to Support Minorities documented that a Salafist attacked the Russian Orthodox Church in Tunis and broke its crosses. The suspected person was arrested.

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