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Tunisia - Religion

Tunisia is primarily a Muslim country, with 98.2 percent of the people practicing Sunni Islam. Groups that constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Shi'a Muslims, Baha'is, Jews, and Christians. Although the country is primarily Muslim, according to the National Charter of 1988, freedom of religion is guaranteed. The Christian community in Tunisia is made up mostly of Europeans. The only legal restriction on the practice of non-Muslim religions is that it is criminal to convert someone from Islam.

In most countries where Muslim Arabs are predominant, the fountainhead of traditional social and political values is Islam, the religion brought to Tunisia by the Arabs in the seventh century. The word of God (Allah), revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and recorded in the Quran, provides Muslims with an integrated structure ordering all personal, social, and political aspects of life. After Tunisian independence, however, the traditional social order, particularly as it affected the family and women, was gradually supplanted by a system based on liberal values, and the government became the leader in effecting change. Responsibility for social security and education, formerly accepted as the duty of the extended family, was assumed by the state. With varying degrees of success, religious rituals, family law, and social customs became targets of official pressure and legislation in the name of equality and productivity - values regarded as critical to the goals of modernization and national development.

Habib Bourguiba, the country's first president, became a pioneer among Arab leaders in declaring his intention to bring about social modernization within the framework of Islam, the national religion. Postindependence history has in large part been a chronicle of progress achieved in this endeavor, and the reforms attained have amounted to a social revolution in a Muslim environment. Bourguiba abolished the traditional sharia courts, reformed religious education, outlawed polygyny, legalized birth control and abortion, and brought about change in the religion-based system of landholding.

In retrospect, there seems little doubt that the reforms introduced in the Tunisian society stemmed to some degree from Bourguiba's determination to neutralize long-standing conservative Muslim power. The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the freedom to practice the rites of one's religion unless they disturb the public order; however, the government imposes some restrictions on this right. The constitution stipulates the country's determination to adhere to the teachings of Islam, that Islam is the official state religion, and that the president is required to be Muslim.

The government prohibited efforts to proselytize Muslims; it also restricted the wearing of "sectarian dress," including the hijab (Islamic headscarf). Domestic and international human rights organizations reported instances of police harassment of women wearing the hijab and men with traditional Islamic dress and beards.

The government controlled and subsidized mosques and paid the salaries of imams (clerics). The president appointed the Grand Mufti of the Republic, who is the official expounder of Islamic law. The 1988 Law on Mosques stipulates that only personnel appointed by the government may lead activities in mosques and that mosques must remain closed except during prayer times and authorized religious ceremonies, such as marriages or funerals. However, several historically significant mosques were partially open to tourists and other visitors for a few hours each day, several days a week. New mosques may be built in accordance with national urban planning regulations; however, upon completion, they became the property of the government. The authorities have reportedly informed imams that those who used mosques to "spread ideologies" would be prosecuted.

The government does not permit the establishment of political parties based on religion, and it continued to ban the Islamist movement En-Nahdha. The government asserted that religious parties could be vehicles for extremism and that by preventing political parties from becoming channels for intolerance, hatred, and terrorism, it promoted societal tolerance. The government maintained tight surveillance over Islamists and did not issue passports to some alleged Islamists. It maintained that only the courts possessed the power to revoke passports; however, reports indicated that the government rarely observed this separation of powers in politically sensitive cases and independently revoked and denied renewal of passports.

Government decrees dating from 1981 and 1986 restricted the wearing of sectarian dress, generally interpreted to mean the hijab, in government offices and discouraged women from wearing it on public streets and at certain public gatherings. In 2006 a lower court ruled that the 1986 decree was unconstitutional, but the ruling was not binding. The government stated that the hijab was a sign of membership in a fundamentalist group that hides behind religion to achieve political ends and that, according to one modern Islamic school of thought, wearing the hijab was not an obligation. The government described the hijab as a sectarian garment of foreign origin and justified its restriction of the hijab in public institutions as necessary to preserve the impartiality of officials.

It is common to see women wearing the hijab in a variety of public settings and on university campuses. School officials took disciplinary action on several occasions to punish and deter women wearing the hijab. On May 20, 2010, a local NGO reported that the administration of a high school in the northwestern governorate of Manouba refused to notify 70 female students of their college entry exam results because the students continuously wore hijabs during the school year. Similarly, on January 6, 2010, according to the same local NGO, the principal of a high school in the northern governorate of Nabeul forced a female student to remove her hijab and sign a statement that she would desist from wearing the hijab. The student was subsequently arrested, interrogated at a police station about her religious beliefs, and later released.

In 2010 there were reports that police harassed or detained men with long beards or who wore traditional Islamic-style clothing. According to human rights lawyers, the government regularly questioned and detained some Muslims who were observed praying frequently in mosques.

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