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Christians in the Muslim World

Christians in Tunis: an invitation to return to the essence of the faith

“I am learning a lot from my first Christmas in Tunis. The absence of lights and obvious signs of preparation for the feast particularly strike me, because in my old parish it is almost a competition to see who put up the most beautiful lights. But it is the sort of nostalgia that forces me back to the essential of Christmas. It makes me ignore all that is of secondary importance to lead me to the essential significance of Christmas: the coming of Jesus. The Jesus who where lights and decorations are not lacking as in the rich West, is almost no longer mentioned. Here in Tunisia we are lead back to the essential”.



In these first months what struck you most about the local Christian community?



I continuously visit the smallest parishes and communities here and I can see the richness and the hardship of daily life. It is not so much the fact that 99% of Christians are foreigners that complicates the situation so much as the fact that they are temporary. They stay for a while and then leave. So you travel a path destined to end after a while. Then you have to start again. On the other hand this is a great advantage: to listen to the choir of twenty people of thirteen different nationalities is a very vivid expression of the universality of the church which does not look at either colour or passports. But when you realize that someone has left without almost informing everyone you begin to understand how precarious the whole thing is. To start again each time is a continuous provocation even if we depend on the presence of some Tunisian Christian husbands with European wives. When these women are freely allowed by their husbands to frequent their parish, they become a great gift for the church. Often they are catechist or help our community life in various ways. They are often saddened by having to educate in the faith and accompany other people’s children to the sacraments while they cannot do this for their own children whose father wants them educated as Muslims.



How would you then define the Tunisian Church?



It is difficult to define. It is in Africa but does not share the problems of the African churches. The language is Arabic but very different from the Middle East experience. It is rather singular and wants to be loved and recognized. It has a complex richness from which Christians of the old Europe have lot to learn. First of all the constant invitation to discover the essence of the faith.



How do you see the social political situation of the country?



We can see the great tension in the country. We are more worried about what could happen than about the actual situation where they have just emerged from a certain stagnation. This especially if a certain political void exists. Only God knows how that could be solved. Salafi groups have been arrested, arms have been found and it’s like waiting for something to explode. Salafi groups live to fight in Syria and return with guerrilla experience, ready for anything, even to becoming martyrs for the holy war in God’s name. But what gives us hope is that Tunisians love peace and they are an educated open-minded people. State institutions, even the President, have given certain guarantees and promises but nothing has changed since the revolution. The 1964 modus Vivendi remains in force which in fact impedes the Church to own anything.



If, for example, a religious congregation is not getting vocations and must therefore abandon one of its works, they cannot by law leave it to the diocese and so it goes to the state. For year we have been asking them to return to us some of the churches confiscated after independence but without any success. I hope that these birth pains the country is leaving through will lead to a new life with too much suffering for its people.