It was a huge upheaval for the Church of Tunisia. Only a few faithful and several priests remained (for example, the White Fathers of the IBLA). After some years however the Christian presence began to grow, above all because of the arrival of African executives and other expatriates. It was John Paul II that made the first Arab bishop (Msgr. Twal, now Patriarch of Jerusalem), a choice that has continued with his successor Msgr. Lahham and now with the newly elected bishop, Msgr. Antoniazzi, of Venetian origin, but ordained priest in Jerusalem. It was an important sign to say that the Catholic Church in Tunisia does not consider itself merely a guest.
In a realistic way Msgr. Lahham has on several occasions declared that the role of the Christians in the revolution of 2010-2011 was ‘null’ at a practical level. But – he added in his Pastoral Letter just after the revolution - the awareness is alive within the Tunisian Church of sharing the same challenges as the Muslim society in which it lives. This judgement has been reiterated by the present Vicar General, Father Nicolas Lhernould.
The main challenge today is to successfully bring the democratic transition to completion. Initially well configured at institutional level, it has had to deal with the persistent economic crisis, the growth of the Salafis and the ambiguous attitude of the Islamist party of relative majority, an-Nahdha, traversed by temptations of hegemony. The assassination of the leader of the leftist opposition Chokri Belaid brought the country to the attention of the international press, starting a political crisis which has not yet been resolved.
After the revolution there was a period of ‘liberated word’ and the Tunisians were able to discuss any subject. Unlike Egypt however, the question of the Catholic presence was hardly ever on the agenda. It is probably too small to get worried about.
Nonetheless freedom of conscience is one of the great issues of the post-revolution period, not in the sense of the possibility of conversion (a subject that is not particularly important in society if the activities of a number of Evangelical missionaries are excluded), but in the much more concrete sense of the legitimacy of pluralism within Islam (in recent months the Salafis have attacked many tombs of Sufi ‘saints’) and, within Tunisian society, among believers and non-believers. The laical presence in fact is sizeable and toughened, especially in the capital.
It seems so evident that the fight for freedom of conscience in Tunisia is not the only issue for the 20,000 – 25,000 Christians living in the country. As the real litmus test for all the other freedoms, it means the possibility or not to build a really plural society, since to be democratic, as the Arab revolutions show, does not just mean counting up the votes.