Three years after the “Arab Spring” began in Tunisia, the country’s National Constituent Assembly is close to passing a new constitution, which rejects Islam as the “main source of law” and establishes the State’s duty to “protect the sacred.”
The new constitution has been two years in the making. It comes just over three years after the death of a Tunisian vegetable seller set off the movement that swept across North Africa and into the Middle East. As a result of the uprising, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned from office on January 14, 2011, ending 23 years in power.
Tunisians were promised that their long-awaited constitution would be ready by the third anniversary of these unprecedented events. Since the revolution of 2011, controversy has raged between Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that came to power after the first post-Ben Ali general election (and that still leads the interim government), and the broadly secular opposition over whether the State would take the roll of “protector of the sacred”.
Sharia law has no place 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 Islam as the “religion of the State.”
The Catholic Church has voiced support for 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.
Some within Tunisia, however, have criticized 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.
Nevertheless 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.”
Tunisia is a cosmopolitan nation, influenced throughout history by different civilizations 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. Christians 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 practicing Christianity is most fraught with danger. Tunisia was 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 opposed by family members in their choice of religion.
Since the 2011 uprising, many different Islamist groups, previously suppressed under Ben Ali, have resurfaced. 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.
Source: World Watch Monitor
Father, we thank You for the hope this new constitution brings for more freedom to worship in Tunisia. And yet all the efforts of mankind are of naught apart from Your work in the hearts of men. We pray against language that is unclear and open to different interpretations. And we pray that You would soften the hearts of Islamic extremists to join the quest for peace in Tunisia. We pray for Muslims who turn to Christ that they might be protected from family opposition and that You might use their Christ-centered lives to draw others to Yourself. As “Arab Spring” found its spark in Tunisia, we pray that a revival of unprecedented proportions would flow from this nation across the Arab world. In the name of Jesus our only true hope, Amen