The constitution and other laws and policies largely provided for religious freedom but, in practice, the government enforced some restrictions on this freedom. The preamble of the 1959 constitution, which remained in force after Zine El-Abdine Ben Ali fled the country in January, stipulates that Tunisia’s official religion is Islam and that the state seeks to “remain faithful to the teachings of Islam.” Only a Muslim can serve as president, but the constitution provides for the freedom of conscience and free practice of religion when it “does not disturb public order.” The Constituent Assembly, elected in October, had just begun the process of drafting a new constitution at year’s end. Citizens have a right to sue the government for violations of religious freedom.
The government subsidized mosques and paid the salaries of imams (clerics). The Grand Mufti of the Republic, appointed by the president, remained in place after Ben Ali’s departure. The 1988 Law on Mosques stipulates that only personnel appointed by the government may lead activities in mosques. In the past, mosques remained closed except during prayer times and authorized religious ceremonies, such as marriages or funerals, though after January local committees manage day-to-day affairs including opening hours and the policy on outside visitors. After the fall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January, some imams were ousted by conservative adherents and replaced, in some cases by Salafist imams. The interim government did not interfere. Construction of new mosques is permitted as long as they are built in accordance with national urban planning regulations; however, the mosques become government property upon completion and the government is responsible for maintenance and upkeep.
Codified civil law is based on the Napoleonic code, although judges often used Sharia (Islamic law) as a basis for customary law in family and inheritance disputes. For example, codified laws provide women with custody over their minor children; however, when fathers contested cases, judges generally refused to grant women permission to leave the country with their children, maintaining that Islamic law appointed the father as the head of the family and permission for children’s travel must be granted by the father.
The government allowed the Jewish community freedom of worship and paid the salary of the grand rabbi. It also provided security for all synagogues and partially subsidized restoration and maintenance costs for some. Government employees, the majority of whom are Muslims, maintained the Jewish cemetery in Tunis.
A new draft law on associations was presented in August and promulgated on September 24. The new draft eliminates the penal dispositions in the previous law as well as the prohibition of belonging to, or serving in an unrecognized or dissolved association, including religious associations. The registration procedure has been eased, and it is more difficult for government entities to hinder or delay the registration process. Most importantly, the Interior Ministry can no longer abolish an association without passing the case through the courts.
Previous government decrees that restricted the wearing of sectarian dress were lifted during the year. An Administrative Court has since ruled that universities can choose whether to ban the niqab (face-covering veil.) Some universities have chosen to restrict the niqab to varying degrees; some only during exams and others completely. Whether female students should be permitted to wear niqab in a public educational institution was a contentious issue that was unresolved at year’s end.
The government recognizes all Christian and Jewish religious organizations that were established before independence in 1956. The government permitted Christian churches to operate freely, and formally recognized the Catholic Church through a 1964 concordat with the Holy See. In addition to authorizing 14 churches “serving all sects” of the country, the government recognizes land grants signed by the Bey of Tunis in the 18th and 19th centuries that allow other churches to operate. Occasionally Catholic and Protestant religious groups held services in private residences or other locations after receiving formal approval from the government.
Islamic religious education is mandatory in public schools, but the religious curriculum for secondary school students also includes the history of Judaism and Christianity. The Zeitouna Qur’anic School is part of the government’s national university system, which is otherwise secular.
The government permitted the Jewish community to operate private religious schools and allowed Jewish children on the island of Djerba and in Tunis to split their academic day between secular public schools and private religious schools. The government-run Essouani School and the Houmt Souk Secondary School were the only schools where Jewish and Muslim students studied together. In order to accommodate the Jewish Sabbath, school authorities determined that Muslim students would attend Islamic education lessons on Saturdays while their Jewish classmates would attend classes on religion at a Jewish school in Djerba. There was also a small private Jewish school in Tunis.
The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: the Islamic New Year, the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha.