People walking in the Medina in Sfax, a city on Tunisia's east coast. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
The medina in Sfax, a city on Tunisia’s east coast. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Non-Muslims in Tunisia have taken to the streets during this year’s Ramadan to protest the closure of many cafés and restaurants, saying they can’t be forced to fast, reports the New York Times (NYT).

Around 100 protestors began Ramadan this year by drinking water and eating sandwiches in central Tunis in the middle of the day, calling their protest ‘Mouch Bessif’, or ‘Not by Force’ – a reference to their belief that fasting should be a matter of choice.

This year’s Ramadan, which requires Muslims to fast until sunset every day, will come to an end over the next couple of days (timings vary from country to country), as Muslims across the world celebrate Eid al-Fitr.

Although Tunisia has no law that governs opening times of cafes and restaurants during Ramadan, “99 per cent of Tunisians are Muslims, so the minority of the non-fasting must respect the majority”, according to former minister Lotfi Brahem.

Social pressures

As the NYT noted, social pressures to observe Ramadan are “powerful across the region”.

“People are scared to come and protest with us because it is difficult to own up to the act of non-fasting in Tunisia,” said Sofiene Kosksi, of the Freethinkers Movement, which initiated the protests.

World Watch Monitor reported earlier this week how in Egypt two Christian men were harassed and beaten for drinking water in the middle of the day during Ramadan.

Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution guarantees religious freedom, but this is curbed by old laws and societal pressure, concluded the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, following his visit to Tunisia in April.

This is especially true for those who decide to follow another faith than Islam, he said.

Tunisia’s converts to Christianity face serious, often violent, opposition from their relatives and communities who discover their new faith, according to Christian charity Open Doors International, which estimates that there are less than 25,000 Christians in Tunisia, among a population of more than 11 million.

The country ranks 30th on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.