The Malik ibn Anas Mosque in Carthage, near the capital Tunis. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
The Malik ibn Anas Mosque in Carthage, near the capital Tunis. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Old laws and societal pressure pose the greatest challenges to religious freedom in Tunisia, concluded the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, after a ten-day visit.

Though Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution guarantees religious freedom, there is still work to be done to align its laws and practices to the standards the North African country has set itself, Shaheed concluded in his preliminary findings.

A number of old laws, such as “public morality concepts” and “public order provisions”, are used to enforce restrictions on, for example, food consumption during Ramadan, Shaheed noted.

And while Tunisia does not have a ‘blasphemy law’, the government’s duty to “protect the sacred”, as specified in the Constitution, could be used in a similar way, said Shaheed, who said “penalis[ing] speech that is critical of religion or insults religion [also] amounts to an illegal restriction on the right to freedom of expression”.

Another way in which religious freedom in the 99%-Muslim nation is curbed is through societal pressure, he said, especially on those who decide to follow another faith. This is especially true for Tunisia’s converts to Christianity, who face serious, often violent, opposition from their relatives and communities who discover their new faith, according to the international charity Open Doors.

And while people are free to worship, Shaheed said “some communities, notably newer groups, reportedly faced indirect restrictions on aspects of the public manifestation of religion or belief. These restrictions result from the failure of these communities to obtain registration that would grant them requisite legal status for carrying out several institutional functions or public manifestation of religious beliefs”.

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

There is no place for Sharia (Islamic law) in Tunisia’s Constitution, but it does say that Islam is the “religion of the State” and requires the Head of State to be Muslim. Since the Speaker of parliament can temporarily be the Head of State, Shaheed said he was concerned this role was also restricted to Muslims only.

Meanwhile rising militant Islamism and returning IS fighters challenge Tunisia’s democratisation, said Shaheed, who warned that in countering extremism, the government must not violate freedom of conscience and privacy.