U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2002 - Tunisia

Islam is the state religion. The Constitution provides for the free exercise of other religions that do not disturb the public order, and the Government generally observes and enforces this right; however, there were some restrictions and abuses.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. The Government does not permit the establishment of political parties on the basis of religion, prohibits proselytizing, and partially limits the religious freedom of members of the Baha'i faith.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 63,170 square miles and its population is 9.6 million. The vast majority of the population is nominally Muslim. There is no reliable data on the number of practicing Muslims. There is a small indigenous Sufi Muslim community; however, there are no statistics regarding its size. Reliable sources report that many Sufis left the country shortly after independence when their religious buildings and land reverted to the Government (as did those of Orthodox Islamic foundations), leaving them no place to worship. Although the Sufi community is small, its tradition of mysticism permeates the practice of Islam throughout the country. During annual Ramadan festivals, Sufis provide public cultural entertainment with whirling dervish dances.

The nominal Christian community – composed of foreign temporary and permanent residents and a small group of native-born citizens of both European and Arab origin – numbers approximately 20,000 and is dispersed throughout the country. According to church leaders, the practicing Christian population is approximately 1,000 and includes an estimated 200 native-born ethnic Arab citizens who have converted to Christianity. The Catholic Church operates seven churches, six private schools, and six cultural centers/libraries throughout the country, as well as one hospital in Tunis, the capital. It has approximately 400 practicing members, composed of temporary and permanent foreign residents and a small number of native-born citizens of European and Arab origin. In addition to holding religious services, the Catholic Church also freely organizes cultural activities and performs charitable work throughout the country. The Russian Orthodox Church has 100 practicing members and operates 2 churches – 1 in Tunis and 1 in Bizerte. The French Reform Church operates 1 church in Tunis, with a congregation of 140 primarily foreign members. The Anglican Church has approximately 50 foreign members who worship in a church in Tunis. The 30-member Greek Orthodox Church maintains 1 church each in Tunis, Sousse, and Jerba. There are also 50 members of Jehovah's Witnesses, of which about half are foreign residents and half are native-born citizens.

With 1,800 adherents split nearly equally between the capital and the island of Jerba, the Jewish community is the country's largest indigenous religious minority. The Jewish community on the island of Jerba dates back 2,500 years. There are also 150 members of the Baha'i Faith.

There is no information available regarding the number of atheists in the country.

Foreign missionary organizations and groups operate; however, they are not permitted to proselytize in the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

Islam is the state religion. The Constitution provides for the free exercise of other religions that do not disturb the public order, and the Government generally observes and enforces this right; however, it does not permit the establishment of political parties based on religion, prohibits proselytizing, and partially limits the religious freedom of Baha'is. The Constitution stipulates that the President of the Republic must be a Muslim.

The Government recognizes all Christian and Jewish religious organizations that were established before independence in 1956. Although the Government permits Christian churches to operate freely, only the Catholic Church has formal recognition from the post-independence Government. The other churches operate under land grants signed by the Bay of Tunis in the 18th and 19th centuries, which are respected by the post-independence Government. Since October 1999, the Government has not acted on a request for recognition of a Jewish religious organization in Jerba; however, the group has been permitted to operate and it performs religious activities and charitable work unhindered.

The Muslim holidays of Aid El-Kebir, Ras Al-Am El-Hejri, Mouled, and Aid Essighir are observed as national holidays.

The Government promotes interfaith understanding by sponsoring regular conferences and seminars on religious tolerance and by facilitating and promoting the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba Synagogue. In 2000 the University of Manouba established the only chair of comparative religion in the country with the help of United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government controls and subsidizes mosques and pays the salaries of prayer leaders. The President appoints the Grand Mufti of the Republic. The 1988 Law on Mosques provides that only personnel appointed by the Government may lead activities in mosques, and stipulates that mosques must remain closed except during prayer times and other authorized religious ceremonies, such as marriages or funerals. New mosques may be built in accordance with national urban planning regulations; however, they then become the property of the State. The Government also subsidizes partially the Jewish community.

The Government does not permit the establishment of political parties on the basis of religion, and uses this prohibition to refuse recognition of the illegal Islamist An-Nahdha Party and to prosecute suspected party members. The Government maintains tight surveillance over Islamists and members of the Islamic fundamentalist community. The Government has revoked the identity cards of an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Islamists and fundamentalists, which prevents them from being employed legally, attending court hearings, or using public telephones or faxes. According to reliable sources, the Government has refused to issue passports to Islamists and fundamentalists, and has reportedly confiscated the passports of a small number of Tunisian Christian converts. The Government forbids the wearing of hijab (traditional headscarves worn by Islamist and Islamic fundamentalist women) in government offices. There were some reports of police requiring women to remove their hijabs in offices and on the street.

The Government allows the Jewish community freedom of worship and pays the salary of the Grand Rabbi. It also partially subsidizes restoration and maintenance costs for some synagogues. In October 1999, the provisional Jewish community elected a new board of directors, its first since independence in 1956; however, the board has not met while it awaits approval from the governor of Tunis. Once the governor approves the election, which originally was expected to be only a formality, the board (now referred to as the Jewish Committee of Tunisia) is expected to receive permanent status. Approval had not been granted by the governor by the end of the period covered by this report, although approval still is expected. The Government permits the Jewish community to operate private religious schools and allows Jewish children on the island of Jerba to split their academic day between secular public schools and private religious schools. The Government also encourages Jewish émigrés to return for the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the historic El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Jerba. However, during the period covered by this report, the Government continued to refuse recognition to a Jewish religious organization in Jerba, although the group has been permitted to operate and perform religious activities and charity work unhindered.

The Government regards the Baha'i Faith as a heretical sect of Islam and permits its adherents to practice their faith only in private. Although the Government permits Baha'is to hold meetings of their National Council in private homes, it reportedly has prohibited them from organizing local councils. The Government reportedly pressures Baha'is to eschew organized religious activities. There are credible reports that police periodically call in prominent Baha'is for questioning; however, the number of such incidents decreased during the period covered by this report. The Government also unofficially denied the Baha'i request for permission to elect local assemblies during the period covered by this report. The Government also does not permit Baha'is to accept a declaration of faith from persons who wish to convert.

In general the Government does not permit Christian groups to establish new churches, and proselytizing is viewed as an act against public order. Foreign missionary organizations and groups operate; however, they are not permitted to proselytize. Authorities deport foreigners suspected of proselytizing and do not permit them to return. There were no reported cases of official action against persons suspected of proselytizing during the period covered by this report; however, in April 2001, there were reports that materials distributed by Christian missionaries in Sfax were confiscated from local secondary students.

There were reports of cases during the period covered by this report in which the Government punished individuals who converted to another faith from Islam by denying them the ability to obtain a passport, to vote, and to enlist in the military, among other rights.

Islamic religious education is mandatory in public schools, but the religious curriculum for secondary school students also includes the history of Judaism and Christianity. The Zeitouna Koranic School is part of the Government's national university system.

Both religious and secular nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) are governed by the same legal and administrative regulations that impose some restrictions on freedom of assembly. For example, all NGO's are required to notify the Government of meetings to be held in public spaces at least 3 days in advance and to submit lists of all meeting participants to the Ministry of Interior. In 2000 there were credible reports that two Christian religious organizations did not attempt to register because they believed that their applications would be rejected; however, they were able to function freely under the auspices of their respective churches. Neither group believed that it was a victim of religious discrimination. A third group, composed of foreign Christians mostly from Sweden and the United Kingdom, is active in providing medical and social services in the city of Kasserine in the west. Despite its ambiguous legal status, this group (with 15 to 20 members) reports that it has been free to pursue its social and medical work without interference and states that it does not believe that it has been subject to religious discrimination.

Religious groups are subjected to the same restrictions on freedom of speech and the press as secular groups. Primary among these restrictions is "depot legal," which formerly required that printers and publishers provide copies of all publications to the Chief Prosecutor, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Culture prior to publication. In April 2001, the Chamber of Deputies approved several changes to the Press Code, including the designation of the Ministry of Human Rights, Communications, and Relations with the Chamber of Deputies as the sole central censorship office. Similarly, distributors must deposit copies of publications printed abroad with the Chief Prosecutor and various ministries prior to their public release. Although Christian groups reported that they were able to distribute previously approved religious publications in European languages without difficulty, they claimed that the Government generally did not approve either publication or distribution of Arabic-language Christian material. Moreover, authorized distribution of religious publications was limited to existing religious communities, because the Government views public distribution of religious documents as a threat to public order and hence an illegal act.

Muslim women are not permitted to marry outside their religion. Marriages of Muslim women to non-Muslim men abroad are considered common law, which are prohibited and thus void when the couple returns to the country. Non-Muslim women who marry Muslim men are not permitted to inherit from their husbands, nor may the husband and any children (who are considered Muslim) from the marriage inherit from the non-Muslim wife.

Civil law is codified; however, judges are known to override codified law if their interpretation of Shari'a (Islamic law) contradicts it. For example, codified laws provide women with the legal right to have custody over minor children; however, judges have refused to grant women permission to leave the country with minor children, holding that Shari'a appoints the father as the head of the family and that he must grant children permission to travel.

Generally, Shari'a based interpretation of civil law is applied only in some family cases. Some families avoid the application of Shari'a in inheritance questions by executing sales contracts between parents and children to ensure that sons and daughters receive equal shares of property.

In court a woman's testimony is worth the same as a man's.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

During the period covered by this report, credible sources estimate as many as 1,000 persons were serving prison sentences because of their membership in the illegal Islamist group An-Nahdha or for their alleged Islamist sympathies; however, there were no reports of cases in which it was clear that persons were arrested or detained based solely on their religious beliefs. The Government claims An-Nahdha is a terrorist organization and has accused it of plotting the overthrow of the Government in the early 1990's. A credible source reported that high-ranking leaders of the illegal An-Nahdha have been held in solitary confinement since 1991. Sadok Chourou, a former An-Nahdha member who was sentenced in 1991 for membership in an illegal organization, conducted a hunger strike in May 2001 and again in June 2002 to protest his isolated confinement and the denial of visits by his family.

During the period covered by this report, the Government tried and convicted numerous suspected members of the Islamist community on charges of belonging to an illegal organization. Twenty alleged An-Nahdha members were tried before a criminal court on April 17, 2001, after nearly 4 years in detention. Among them were Ahmed Laamari, Yousef Khedri, and Chokri Gargoui. All the defendants were found guilty of membership in An-Nahdha and sentenced to between 3 and 8 years of prison. Mehdi Zoughah was convicted in February 2001 of belonging to an illegal organization for purportedly holding a meeting with An-Nahdha leader Salah Kerker in Marseille, France, in the early 1990's. Zoughah was convicted on the basis of a single witness whom the Government could not produce in court. Zoughah also was sentenced to 2 years administrative control after his release, under which he is required to sign in at a local police station three times a day. On March 30, 2001, Zougah was released as a result of international pressure. In March 2001, Haroun Mbarek was convicted of belonging to An-Nahdha on the basis of a witness' statement that had been retracted. In May 2001, Mbarek was released from prison on conditional parole. Mbarek's passport eventually was returned to him and, in September 2001, he was granted his ministerial permit from Canadian authorities to return to Canada. Presiding judges in trials of Islamists routinely refuse to investigate claims by defendants that their confessions were extracted under torture.

The Government also continued to place Islamists under administrative control. For example, Hedi Bejaoui has been under administrative control since 1990. Bejaoui was arrested and released in 1990 for membership in An-Nahdha. In May 2001 he began a hunger strike that lasted 6 weeks (ending on June 26, 2001) to protest his administrative control and the seizure of his passport. Bejaoui attempted to travel abroad for medical treatment after the authorities took his medical insurance card.

Sources also report that police awaken suspected Islamists in the night and bring them to police headquarters for interrogation. Human rights activists allege that the Government subjected the family members of Islamist activists to arbitrary arrest and other restrictions, reportedly utilizing charges of "association with criminal elements" to punish family members. For example, one female medical doctor claims that she has been unemployed since 1997 because police have pressured hospitals not to hire her because her husband was convicted of membership in An-Nahdha. One man claimed that for 8 years, the Government refused to issue him a passport because his brother was prosecuted for membership in An—Nahdha.

According to human rights lawyers, the Government regularly questioned Muslims who were observed praying frequently in mosques. Reliable sources report that the authorities instruct imams to espouse government social and economic programs during prayer times in mosques.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion,including of minor U.S. citizens who have been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. However, there were incidents of possible religiously motivated violence. In March 2002, a synagogue in the Tunis suburb of La Marsa was broken into and vandalized. In April 2002 a synagogue in Sfax, a southern commercial city also was vandalized. No injuries were reported and damage at each of the synagogues was minor. The Government responded by increasing security at both sites.

On April 11, 2002, a terrorist attack outside the historic El-Ghriba synagogue on the island of Jerba killed 21 persons and damaged the interior of the synagogue. Two weeks before the annual El-Ghriba pilgrimage (See Section I), the driver of a truck transporting liquid gas detonated an explosive device while the truck stood at the Synagogue's compound wall. The explosion killed 17 tourists and 4 Tunisians, including the driver. The Government initially claimed that the explosion was an accident; however, on April 22, after German authorities became involved in the investigation it admitted that the incident was an attack. The Government provided increased security for the synagogue and encouraged pilgrims and tourists to visit El-Ghriba despite the attack.

There is great societal pressure for Muslims not to convert to other religions, and conversion from Islam is relatively rare. Muslims who do convert may face social ostracism for converting. There is some conversion among individuals in the Christian and Jewish communities.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

The U.S. Embassy maintains good relations with leaders of majority and minority religious groups throughout the country, and the Ambassador and other embassy officials met regularly with Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Baha'i religious leaders throughout the period covered by this report. Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues with government officials on various occasions during the year.

This report is submitted to the Congress by the Department of State in compliance with Section 102(b) of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. The law provides that the Secretary of State, with the assistance of the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, shall transmit to Congress "an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom supplementing the most recent Human Rights Reports by providing additional detailed information with respect to matters involving international religious freedom." This Annual Report includes 195 reports on countries worldwide. The 2002 Report covers the period from July 1, 2001, to June 30, 2002.

This 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.