Al-Zaytuna Mosque, Tunis.Christopher Rose / Flickr / Creative Commons
Three years after the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ started in Tunisia, the country’s National Constituent Assembly is close to passing a new constitution which rejects Islam as the “main source of law”, but states it is the State’s duty to “protect the sacred”.
The new constitution, which has taken two years to conclude, comes almost three years to the day since the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, itself 10 days after the death of a Tunisian vegetable seller, which began the movement that would sweep across North Africa and into the Middle East.
Tunisians were promised that their long-awaited constitution would be ready by the third anniversary.
Since the revolution of 2011, the question of whether the State would be seen as the “protector of the sacred” has caused great controversy between Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party which came to power after the first post-Ben Ali general election (and which still leads the interim government), and the broadly secular opposition.
There is no place for Sharia law in the new constitution, which has been welcomed by religious minorities and secularists. Article 6 “prohibits any form of accusation of apostasy and incitement to violence”, while the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings are both rejected as “sources of law”.
As well as being the “protector of the sacred”, the constitution appoints the State as “guarantor of religion” and “guarantor of freedom of conscience” and promises the “neutrality of places of worship in relation to political manipulation”.
However Article 1e of the new constitution (an Article which cannot be amended) specifies that Islam is the “religion of the State”.
The Catholic Church has spoken out in support of the new constitution, which is seen to guarantee freedom of belief.
“We see the respect of every person, whatever his belief, as the foundation of moral legitimacy and every social and legal standard,” said Father Nicolas Lhernould, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of the Catholic Church in Tunis.
However, some have criticised Article 6 as “confusing”.
“We must remove the vagueness of this article, which gives the State the right to ‘guarantee’ religion and ‘protect the sacred’, which can lead to threatening interpretations of citizenship and freedom,” said the Tunisian League of Human Rights.
But Fr. Lhernould said that the constitution was a step in the right direction. “A formula is never absolute; it is its application that counts,” he said. “The situation of religious minorities, and their development, is an important indicator of the quality of a democratic framework.”
However, this part of the constitution was not welcomed by Tunisia’s Wafa party. “This freedom allows Satanists to organise public events to spread their beliefs,” they said.
Tunisia is a cosmopolitan nation, influenced throughout history by different civilisations and religions. With a population of 11 million, the country has between 25,000 and 30,000 Christians, consisting of a large group of expatriate believers – from about 80 countries – and a small group of native-born citizens of European and Arab descent.
They are divided into four main groups: Catholics, the Reformed Church, the Anglican Church and the Orthodox Church.
Tunisia is ranked No. 30 on the 2014 World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries where practising Christianity is most fraught. Tunisia is given 55 points on the 2014 list, five more than in the previous year. This rise is explained by both an increase in the “squeeze” on the small Christian community in the country and a higher number of violent incidents involving Christians.
The World Watch List says that the main threat to Christians in Tunisia is Islamic extremism, which is said to be present at different levels, notably at the family level as converts to Christianity are often not supported in their choice of religion by family members.
Since the 2011 uprising, many different Islamist groupings, previously oppressed under Ben Ali, have emerged. The ultra-conservative Salafists have spread fear throughout the country with huge street protests and rallies. Islamist groups have also been linked to the assassinations of two prominent opposition secularist figures.