In Tunisia, a Muslim majority country in North Africa, a small Christian community fights for survival as it faces enormous challenges.
The country’s Christian community is estimated to have more than 25.000 members. They are mainly indigenous Berbers, Tunisians from Italian, French and Arab descent as well as converts.
While the largest church is the Roman Catholic, numbering around 20.000 members, other active churches include the Russian Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox, the French Reformed Church, the Anglican Church and other Evangelical groups.
“Being Christian here is hard” says J.L a Tunisian Catholic who asked not to share his full name for safety reasons. When asked about what makes it hard to be a Christian in Tunisia he said “It’s as if you are in the valley of the shadow of death, you don’t know whom to trust, you can lose your job any time if your religion is discovered. You walk in the street imagining that everyone next to you is holding a knife to your throat, you don’t know who is going to stab you first”.
J.L says that most young Catholics leave the country to study and work abroad out of fear for their safety and freedom. He recalls how he once got attacked by a group of young people which resulted in several fractures and got him hospitalised for 18 days. “It was a friend, I had known him for 6 years, once I felt safe to tell him about my religion he got irritated and organised the attack few days later” he added. J.L says that the authorities are of no help, you can report such an attack but you will be met with little to no efforts to act. When asked about the situation for other Christians, from other denominations, he said “Catholics are in heaven comparing to Protestants, especially converts, they literally lose it all for Christ”.
“SIMON CARRIED THE CROSS ONE DAY, WE CARRY IT EVERY SINGLE DAY”
Converts into Christianity are all coming from a Muslim background. Leaving Islam is punishable by death according to the Islamic law. However, Tunisia has always been a state ruled by civil laws and killing is unjustifiable before the law, except from a few cases of self defence. In its 2014 constitution Islam is the official religion of the state, yet, the constitution also states that Tunisia is a civil state. The same constitution also guarantees the freedoms of belief and conscience.
The government, however, never allowed the registration of new churches since its independence in 1956. Existing churches of all denominations are restricted from distributing Christian literature in Arabic, and are forbidden from proselytising. “No one wants to talk about this here, it’s very sensitive” said M.A who left Islam and converted to Christianity. He went on to say “One time I got arrested for carrying 4 Bibles with me. I was interrogated for hours before being released with a warning. They said that it was forbidden to carry such books, and if they figured out that I was distributing them they would make my life a nightmare”.
M.A says that despite the constitution no one wants to mess with the Muslim “jealousy”. “Politicians come and go, they speak about everything, even gay rights but when it comes to Christians especially converts they turn a blind eye” he added.
Answering to what forms of persecution converts face, M.A said “It starts with your family in 99% of the cases. They will throw you out to the street (as in my case) possibly after beating you up for weeks and trying to get you to change your mind. If you are a girl it is even worse; they will lock you in most probably for your entire life and possibly forcibly marry you to a Muslim. Forget about all the friends you have had, they are the first ones to throw stones at you. If you are studying pray that the teachers won’t find out, otherwise they will make sure they hurt your feelings, and ‘shaming’ you will become a part of your class everyday. If you have a job shut your mouth or lose it, you rarely have a choice. Simon carried the cross one day, here we carry it every single day”.
“STUCK BETWEEN THE PERSECUTION AND THE MISSIONARIES”
Another Tunisian convert to Christianity, who preferred being called Botross (Arabic for Peter) spoke about his experience saying “I have converted to Christianity 13 years ago. I’ve been Christian for most of my life but I have no legal status, the state considers me a Muslim, I can’t officially register in any church whatsoever. Records of Christians from Muslim background are kept by individuals from the church unofficially”. Botross who left Tunisia to North America 3 years ago shared the circumstances of his departure from Tunisia saying “I was attacked by my father, and cousin! They attacked me with a metal bar and a knife. They called me an infidel, and said that I was leading Muslims astray by ‘converting them to Christianity’. Once you convert, don’t count on any understanding from the closest people to you”.
He responded to whether the authorities intervened or not by saying “Don’t go to the police, that’s rule number one! You will end up being the suspect not the victim. When I went to the police and told them everything they mocked me “How are you a Christian but your name is Muslim?” They said it wasn’t possible to be Christian with a Muslim name, and that it’s madness to ‘change religion’. Here however, even those who are born Christians have Arabic names here because a Christian name is a target mark between your eyes. Police mocked me and dismissed my complaint, they discarded it. It didn’t go anywhere”.
On the church’s reaction Botross said “I had no option but to leave the country, I am not someone who can be mistaken for an imposter seeking a visa. I have been around for 13 years and everyone in the church knows how much I’ve done for Christ there. When I asked for a baptism certificate, they refused to give it to me! They denied me a conversion certificate which could have made it much easier for me to leave the country”.
When asked to precise what he meant by saying ”an imposter seeking a visa”, Botross clarified “Imposters come and go, many people come to the church thinking that by converting they can go to Europe, but they don’t stay around for long, they realise soon that it’s not the case and they leave! At least they don’t stay around for 13 years, not even more than a year”.
On the role of the church he added “People come seeking Christ, seeking to know! The missionaries take them in, teach them the gospel and once they convert they turn into fuel. Not all missionaries are like that, but some western missionaries use us! They don’t teach you to be a good Christian and live for Christ, they teach you that you must share the gospel ruthlessly even when they know well it could get you killed”.
He continued “I was a part of a home group organised by a missionary, every Sunday we committed to talking to five people about the Gospel in the coming week, random people. When it started firing back on us, and we started to get persecuted the only thing you heard from missionaries was that we should have been ‘wise’! There is no wisdom in sharing the gospel to random people in the first place, this is crazy. When you consider leaving the country they convince you that the Lord wants you there to serve him. They keep teaching you about martyrdom for Christ. For some missionaries we are simply numbers, we are material for their fund-raising photos which they send back home. You come to Christ with zeal, the missionaries consume you, when you burn out, they turn their back on you. Being stuck between the persecution and the missionaries is like being stuck between the hammer and the anvil”.
R.A, another Tunisian who converted to Christianity said that despite the few problematic missionaries, most of the missionaries are very careful and truly fear for our safety. “Here we learned, even new converts are immediately warned not to work with the problematic missionaries. These few are the Christian equivalent of Jihadis, they teach you to die for Jesus rather for Islam, that’s the only difference. But most missionaries are good, they help us learn to live, to love and be good Christians and citizens” R.A said.
A BETTER TOMORROW
Tunisia once a Berber land populated by a Christian majority was invaded by the conquering Islamic armies between 670-682 A.D. Since then Berbers, and other natives were forcibly converted to Islam, or obliged to pay a tax for their lives known as Al-Jizya. Since then the country has become predominantly Muslim and was ruled by Islamic monarchies until the monarchy was abolished with the declaration of the first republic by the Tunisian parliament on July 25th 1957.
With the new constitution of the second republic completed and declared in 2014, a constitution that has been widely praised for its progressiveness and respect for individual freedom many hope that with time the governments will get stronger and be able to act in favour of Christians of all backgrounds, to protect them, recognise them and support them. However, most Christians believe that governments after the 2011 revolution are weak and cannot make any drastic changes, at least not soon enough. For the Tunisian Christian community, the only things they have are hope and prayers that they will one day be able to live in dignity and freedom in their homeland and that the reality of the constant hiding and fear will one day be something of the past.