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Christians in the Muslim World

Educate the youth for the current situation, an essential mission of the Church

We are often questioned about the meaning of our presence and therefore of our mission in Islamic lands. Muslim society has its own convictions, which are not always in agreement with our Creed; but our job is not to change the entire Muslim society. Nonetheless, it would be impossible to live in a country, meet with its inhabitants and work together without communicating to them "something" of our own identity. This "communicating something" is called announcement or testimony.


In other words: it is inconceivable for us to live our Christian identity, our belonging to Christianity, without our Muslim interlocutors being aware of it. Then if the Christian is also an Arab, we can speak of real culture shock! We live the Mystery of hope, since we are already the Church of our peoples, the local Church in which the Spirit is at work in the heart of every man.


I do not want to overlook the contribution of the many laypersons who, working in companies, in development efforts and in the offices of international organizations, represent a valid element of dialogue and testimony within Tunisian society. The Church, for its part, is carrying out assistance works (Saint-Augustin Clinic, house calls, rest homes for the elderly, refugee services, support for Tunisian associations for the handicapped and for abandoned children), cultural works (libraries for secondary schools, universities, research; literacy courses), and educational works.


We would specifically like to speak about the educational works: ten schools accommodating 6,000 Tunisian students, all Muslims, between 3 and 20 years old. That is about 6,000 families (not counting those who unfortunately remain on the waiting list) who entrust their children to these sometimes centenarian institutions. The managing nucleus is made up of Catholics whose educational project takes place in the context of the Tunisian state system, and is carried out with a completely Tunisian teaching staff. The underlying goal is to educate the younger generation towards a positive approach to the current situation, through coordinated and concordant action. Among other things, training for young people, conceived in this way, is capable of providing an essential service to the country.


This educational work also creates contacts with public institutions (city governments, Ministers, etc.), whose officials are often very collaborative with our work, recognising its gratuitousness and goodness.


But how did this extraordinary educational experience come about? It is necessary to go back to 1234, when the Dominicans established an apostolate in Tunisia among Christian soldiers and Spaniards taken to Africa under the Almohadic dynasty. At the initiative of St. Raymond of Peñafort, an Arabic school was founded in their convent in 1250. We can think of this school as the foundation of the educational and cultural works which the Church has initiated during its entire history in Tunisia. From that moment on, up to the XIX century, the Church's activities as far as we know consisted in spiritual and when possible material assistance for foreigners in Tunisia (merchants, diplomatic personnel, free militias and slaves). Further news regarding educational activities in the strict sense of the word date back to the period of the Apostolic Vicariate of Tunis (1843-1881). This was a moment of particular development for the European colonies in Tunisia, caused by two factors: the suppression of piracy in 1830, imposed by the European powers, which had favoured the security of maritime commerce; environmental conditions in Tunisia, which had made it the goal of immigration from the Mediterranean basin. Among those ecclesiastical works created for the benefit of the entire population (Christian and non-Christian), were the schools.


On May 12th 1881, the Treaty of Bardo established the Protectorate of France over Tunisia. May 28th, Mons. Charles-Allemand Lavigerie, ex-Bishop of Nancy and at that time the Archbishop of Algiers, succeeded Mons. Sutter as Apostolic Administrator.


Tunisia's French protectorate charter caused a rise not only in the number of French, but also Italians, Maltese and citizens of other European colonies. Emigrants from all over went to the region, in the hopes of finding a job that would enable them to live or a new field of action for their own business initiatives.


In response to the needs of the Christian population, parishes were created in different cities. Moreover, some religious congregations committed to education and other charity works arrived in Tunisia: Sisters of O.L. of Sion, White Sisters, Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Marians.


As for XX century history, here are the more important events.



Episcopacy of Monsignor Combes (1893-1920): During this period, educational works continued to develop, through the first years of the XX century, when the French authorities declared the closure of Christian schools following their policies of opposition to the Church.



Episcopacy of Monsignor Lemaître (1922-1939): One of his first initiatives was to order the clergy to put the habit back on and reopen the previously suppressed schools, since, he declared, «the anti-religion laws are not applicable in Tunisia».



Period of Independence (1956-1990): On July 10th, 1964, eight years after Tunisia won independence, the Modus Vivendi was signed. This is an accord which «assures the indispensable conditions for the life of the Church and its relationship with the power and organisation of the State» (Osservatore Romano).



Diocesan administration (1990-92): Agreements are stipulated among French organisations for Catholic volunteers and the first coopérants initiate cooperation with Diocesan Institutions (schools, libraries, etc.).


In 1992 I was nominated Bishop-prelate of Tunisia, and consecrated July 22. On September 19th I entered Tunis. For my part, the intervention which has most to do with educational works has been the appeal to congregations and movements from various countries. Among the Congregations with an educational orientation which have arrived in these years I would like to recall the Dominican Sisters of S. Catherine of Siena (Iraq), the Egyptian Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the Daughters of the Sacred Heart (Malta). Unfortunately, over the years it has been necessary to close the professional schools of a social and charitable nature because of a lack of religious personnel and especially because they did not meet the norms requested by the government. Now these spaces have been transformed to serve as lodging for new communities. Such painful decisions have always been made after a careful examination of all other possible solutions.



Catholics in Tunisia



«Tunisia belongs to the Arab world, more precisely to the Maghreb, and at the same time it belongs to the Mediterranean world. In the course of history, with the succession of shining civilizations which have encountered one another here, a network of relations has been created which have left their mark on the country. Even today Tunisia has an important role in cooperation and in the exchanges that develop in the region».



(Speech by the Holy Father to the representatives of the Tunisian authorities, April 14th, 1996, Carthage).



There are about 20,000 Catholics in Tunisia, out of a population of roughly 10 million. All of them are foreigners, from 44 different countries. After the country won independence and after the signing of the Modus Vivendi between the Holy See and the Tunisian government (1964), the Church was able to retain ownership of five parish churches, a few monasteries, a clinic, five libraries and ten schools which accommodate 6,000 Tunisian students between the ages of 3 and 20 years.



«We read in the Acts of the Apostles that [Christians] praised God and enjoyed the entire people's esteem (cf. Acts 2,47). This phrase recalls, in some way, the fundamental double commandment of love of God and one's neighbour. In fact, God is worthily honoured when those who adore him respect man, His creature. Put this programme for a Christian life into action every day, in prayer and acts. I am thinking about the educational and professional training works that you carry out [] Carry out these brotherly services, these works of mercy that make love for one's neighbour concrete The Church in Tunisia also hopes, in its own environment, to contribute to the satisfaction of emerging needs. Its institutions [] in education are aimed at being of service to all Tunisians. These are fields for a fertile cooperation between Muslims and Christians, for a common contribution to the common good».



(John Paul II,Homily in the Cathedral of Tunis and Speech to the Representatives of the Tunisian Authorities, April 14th, 1996)