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Christians in the Muslim World

The Christians in Tunis, the thermometer of democracy

Interview with Father Nicolas Lhernoud, Vicar General of the archdiocese of Tunis, by Maria Laura Conte

Despite what we often read in the western newspapers, we Christians are not in a situation of insecurity any more than the other inhabitants of the country. The Tunisian revolution has not had a ‘religious’ characterisation and no particular anti-Christian movement has originated from it. The revolution has opened up a phase of uncertainty, a fear of tomorrow, which involves everyone in the same way. We share the same wait, the same daily routine as the other inhabitants of this country. From Europe they sometimes ask us if we are afraid to live here, but this happens because our situation is often seen through the prism of Egypt or Algeria of years ago.



The truth is that here there is a very strong debate within Islam, not a tension between Christians and Muslims. I became aware of this perception of our situation in Paris a couple of months ago, during a conference on the situation in Egypt and Tunisia following the Arab spring. Many questions from the audience were marked by the idea that we were in danger. Instead we are not afraid, we are doing fine here. Undoubtedly the climate of general insecurity makes it necessary to behave carefully, but also to keep a eye on and read about the events going on as clearly as possible, without prejudices. The political-institutional situation is in a critical phase: the procedures for the establishment of a new government still appear long and complicated and, while Tunis is still shocked by the assassination of Chokri Belaid, violent clashes continue all over the country. A recent survey on the political decision of the electors showed a clearer bipolarisation in the people and it appears that An-Nahda is losing consensus in many areas of the country.



What is the most urgent issue for you today?



The number one challenge for the country is the economy. Today people are asking themselves more and more frequently: ‘What shall I eat tomorrow?’. Unemployment is high and so is inflation. The European crisis does not help, considering that Tunisia’s first economic partner is Europe. The second challenge and urgent need at the moment is security. Some groups or movements are fearsome, like the amorphousness of the Salafites. We do not know exactly who they are or what they want. The presence of this shady area forces us to be cautious, but we are not losing either our calm or optimism.



In the past a number of things happened that at first were interpreted wrongly as acts against us, but which upon more detailed analysis turned out to be an expression of other types of social unrest. For example, the assassination of the Polish Salesian missionary Marek Rybinski, which took place in Manouba in 2011, and which had nothing to do with a religious motive; the attempts to burn the church of Sousse were linked to a confirmed family tragedy with psychological origin, not to anti-Christian aims. There is no situation of particular hatred against us, but it is an entire society that is afflicted.



And what can the contribution of the small flock of Christians be in this affliction?



It often happens that people ask to stay here to help Tunisia in this maturity phase of a democratic culture [it is immediate under the very concept of presence]. Insofar as a minority we constitute a sort of goad to understand how an authentic democracy must leave room for the expression of all its members in order to avoid becoming a majority dictatorship. For this reason with our simple presence here we are ‘passively’ a sort a thermometer that measures the level of democracy of the ongoing process. It does not lie with us to express an explicit political standpoint. Political militancy is not our tas’.



And in what exactly is your presence here shown? Where are the Christians at work in Tunisia?



I would like to mention three contexts in particular. The first is linked to our cultural, spiritual and social solidarity work. For example, our nine schools, attended by children and boys and girls up to the age of 15; our work of social support for the disabled, abandoned children, teenage mothers; the libraries, places that help to develop dialogue and reflection. In many of these cases it is work that we have been doing in collaboration with Tunisian bodies of which we are partners.



The second context is more ‘economic’: many of the Christians who live here do so for work, entrepreneurs or executives of the multinationals, and in this phase they are particularly at the mercy of political instability, the lack of economic regulations in the country and the crisis in Europe. Therefore the Church in Tunisia is called upon to stand by these non-clerical representatives in their economic and business challenges.



Lastly, the third pole, experienced daily and in all contexts of life, consists in dialogue. The revolution has brought a wave of innovation in this context too, and we must listen to the new claims that are being made, for example in the universities and in the places of public debate in general.



Therefore, if I am not mistaken, you are not on the sidelines of this transition period …



People speak with us more easily than before. We are known as the people that lend an ear and accompany with words at a personal level, but with discretion. We use digital social communication and we take part in the common debate, not opting out but always maintaining a certain measure and prudence.



The numbers



There are about 11 million inhabitants in Tunisia. The Christians are 25-30,000 of almost 80 different nationalities. Of these 85-90 % are Catholics. The diocese numbers 10 parishes and 40 priests, 10 of whom are based in Tunisia, the others are missionaries, priests or Fidei Donum (just to mention a few: Salesian missionaries, The Incarnate Word missionaries, Lazarists, White Fathers, etc…). There are 130 nuns, in 25 communities.

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