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Christians flee as Islamist influence grows in Tunisia

Country/Region: Tunisia, Middle East and North Africa

They’re taking advantage of the revolution. Aziz Khasseba, a Tunisian teacher who is campaigning against growing Islamist influence

Reports of Christians fleeing for safety, violent attacks against opponents and the forced veiling of women are coming from Tunisia, raising fears that Islamist extremists are hijacking the revolution.

Tunisia revolution protest
A demonstration in central Tunis during the Tunisian revolution CC BY 2.0 by cjb22

Christians who have sought to take advantage of the promise of greater freedom in post-Ben Ali Tunisia to share their faith have been forced to flee the country or move to safer locations after receiving threats from Islamists.

One outspoken opponent of Islamist extremism and advocate of secular democracy, Nouri Bouzid, the acclaimed Tunisian film director, who is not a Christian, was wounded in a stabbing in April. A week later, a speaker at a rally organised by Ennahda, Tunisia’s largest Islamist party, called for Bouzid to be “shot with a Kalashnikov”, a call that was met with cries of “Allahu Akbar” from the audience.

And there are signs of an increasing public imposition of Islam in the country, which has previously been strongly resistant to attempts by conservative Muslims to make Tunisian society more Islamic. Mokhtar Trifi, head of the country’s human rights league, said that manifestations of Islamic radicalism such as forced veiling, forced prayer and condemnations for apostasy are rising all over the country.

Ennahda, which committed terrorist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s, is reportedly targeting the mosques, forcing moderate imams from their posts. The group, which was banned under Ben Ali, claims to be moderate, saying that “Islam and modernity can live together in complete tranquillity”, but there have been mixed messages about its agenda. Ennahda voted for a rule that 50 per cent of candidates in the forthcoming election must be women, and claims that it does not want to impose the veil, sharia law or an alcohol ban. But opponents are not convinced. Maya Jribi, secretary general of the main liberal party, the PDP, said:

Our problem is the gap between what they say and what they do. There’s one message in the media and another in the mosques, where they are doing a big campaign. They say that Islam is a package, you have to take the whole package. For politicians to say that, that’s very dangerous.

Such reports come just weeks ahead of elections for a body to draw up the new Tunisian constitution. Ennahda looks set to become the largest single party with around 30 per cent of the vote, which would give it significant sway in shaping the country’s future. Tunisia, which is more than 99 per cent Muslim, is currently among the most secular of Muslim states, and many aspects of sharia law are not in force.

A dozen new parties have formed since the revolution, but Ennahda, which has existed – albeit under a different name – since 1981, is better organised to contest an election. There is growing concern that the birthplace of the “Arab Spring” will become the first country to see Islamists take significant political power.

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christian, persecution, charity, church, persecuted, sookhdeo, Islam

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