Tunis, Tunisia     09. Jul. 2015

The Christians in the country are shocked following the jihadist attack on Western tourists

Königstein, 09. July 2015. Following the jihadist terror attack on tourists in Tunisia at the end of last week, the priest of the Catholic cathedral of Tunis emphasised that the majority of Tunisians are not extremists. “The incumbent government also does not want an Islamic Sharia state. On the contrary,” Argentine native Father Sergio Perez said on Thursday during an interview with the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “I believe that this is the very reason why the jihadists want to hurt Tunisia, a country that, despite many a restriction, is well on its way to democracy and stability,” the monastic from the Institute of the Incarnate Word, IVE, continued. “In all likelihood, they do not want other Arab countries to see a model that is working. This goal can best be achieved by striking there, where the Tunisian economy is at its most susceptible: tourism.” He then went on to say that a large number of tourists had left the country after the attack, which killed 38 people. “This will have serious consequences for the country’s economy, which is already suffering.” However, Father Sergio also believes that the attack has brought non-extremist powers even closer together. 

“The Christians of Tunisia are of course shocked by the massacre. Some are also afraid. However, I trust in the authorities. They now want to keep the cathedral or the bishop, for example, from becoming the target of a jihadist attack at all costs. Such an attack would be devastating for the reputation of the country. This is why they have taken all the necessary security measures.” He then said that, as regards Christian institutions, security measures were already increased after the March attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis. At the time, jihadists killed 20 visitors at the famous museum. For this reason, Father Sergio said, measures were taken such as the installation of security cameras around the Catholic cathedral and the hiring of security people. To his knowledge, no concrete threats have been made against Christian institutions at this time. The government has tightened security measures throughout the country. In addition, about 80 mosques in which preachers were calling for violence have been closed. He then said that interreligious events were currently being held against terrorism and extremism, which are being attended by representatives of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. “I call upon the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need to pray for Tunisia. It is a small country. But it has a rich Christian history and dear people. It is not a coincidence that the Arab Spring with its pursuit of freedom and dignity began here,” the monastic said in his appeal.

The Catholic Church is the largest single church in Tunisia. The church is represented by an archbishop in Tunis. Various monastic communities help to further the charitable mission of the church and maintain schools, residence halls for students and medical facilities. In addition, there are smaller Protestant as well as Orthodox communities. It was estimated that in 2012, the country of eleven million inhabitants had approximately 25000 Christians, about 20000 of which were Catholics. There are no official statistics. “It is true that the Catholic Church in Tunisia is mostly made up of foreigners. However, the church feels as though it is part of the history and future of this country,” Father Sergio continued. He then said that the number of Christians in the country had recently been shrinking. “The African Development Bank has left Tunisia and taken hundreds of Christian families who had worked here for more than ten years with it. However, there are still a large number of Catholic students from Sub-Saharan Africa, for whom we provide spiritual care,” Father Sergio said.

The relationship between the church and state is regulated by an agreement. It accords the church and its institutions such as schools and hospitals, which are held in high esteem socially, a legal status, but at the same time restricts their powers. “However, within this framework, which, for example, rules out active proselytism, we can carry out our church mission.” Father Sergio sees the recent developments in a positive light. “The political transition after the fall of the dictatorship largely went according to plan. The new constitution not only guarantees freedom of worship, but also complete freedom of conscience. However, theory is one thing, practice is another. A Muslim who shows an interest in Christianity is placed under strong social pressure,” the priest said. “Even so, time and again a number of Tunisian Muslims dare to take this step and take part in our prayers and charitable works. The atrocities recently carried out by the ‘Islamic State’ and Pope Francis are keeping the interest in Christianity alive.”

For years, Aid to the Church in Need has been supporting the church in Tunisia in its mission. For example, it helped get Father Silvio Moreno published. The vicar of the cathedral has written a book about Tunisia’s Christian roots. Lastly, the nuns of the community “Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará” (SSVM) were able to buy a new car with funding from Aid to the Church in Need.  

Oliver Maksan.