Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed received the Mufti of the Republic Hichem ben Mahmoud, the Chief Rabbi of Tunisia Haim Bittan, and the Archbishop of Tunis Ilario Antoniazzi on Wednesday 17 May. An interview during which he recalled his country’s commitment to peaceful religious coexistence while the Ghriba synagogue is still healing its wounds following the deadly attack on May 9.
The shooting which broke out at the gates of the synagogue on the island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage left six dead, including a Franco-Tunisian, the Marseillais Benjamin Dan Haddad. This is the second time that the Ghriba has been the scene of a bloody attack during the pilgrimage. The first took place in 2002, a suicide attack claimed by Al-Qaeda which killed 21 people.
Tunisia’s president told dignitaries on Wednesday that the attack was intended to “undermine Tunisia and its stability and sow discord and division there,” AFP reported, saying the president then addressed the community. local Jew to reassure them: “You can live in peace and we will guarantee your safety. »
A centuries-old cohabitation
Historically, “people of the Book” are considered deeply rooted communities in the country, explains Tunisian political scientist Hamadi Redissi, who defends a Tunisian “true culture of tolerance”. In fact, the history of religious freedom in the country is marked by several founding events such as “the Fundamental Pact of 1857 which says that all Tunisians are considered equal before the law without distinction of faith”, recalls the researcher. This text also affirms that “Israelite subjects will not undergo any constraint to change their religion, and will not be prevented in the exercise of their worship, etc. “.
The Modus Vivendi of 1964 in turn provides for the protection of the free exercise of Catholic worship in Tunisia by the power in place, and a whole set of measures framing worship and allowing its organization and management by Catholics themselves.
The impact of the Six Day War
The “gestures of appeasement” promoted by successive governments with regard to Jewish and Christian religious minorities were nevertheless seriously undermined by “the attacks committed by a delirious crowd in 1967 in relation to the Six Day War” , recounts Hamadi Redissi. The mass departure of the Jews will follow. The political scientist recalls how much in the minds of many Tunisians the Christian community “carries within it the original sin of having accompanied the colonization of the country”, which can still poison relations today, and “is a simplification of the reality,” he adds.
Despite these obstacles, religious coexistence was not called into question by the 2011 revolution, “this coexistence is therefore a long-term one and remains indifferent to the political question in Tunisia”, concludes the political scientist. A salient example according to him: the reintroduction a few years ago of the celebration on August 15 of “the feast of the Madonna at the port of La Goulette, located 12 km east of Tunis, where Italian fishermen used to to bless the boats”, a celebration which had been banned at the time of the country’s independence in 1956.
“A coexistence with tiny minorities”
This does not prevent a number of “serious blunders” on the part of the Tunisian government in recent weeks, adds Hamadi Redissi, referring to the authorities’ refusal to qualify the attack perpetrated near the synagogue as “terrorist”, resisting thereby giving it an anti-Semitic dimension.
More broadly, religious minorities are extremely small in Tunisia: 1,500 Jews (the country had 100,000 Jews before independence in 1956) and between 20,000 and 30,000 Christians according to the political scientist. “This country is dramatically homogeneous, so the notion of coexistence with tiny minorities poses a philosophical problem,” he argues, “because coexistence presupposes acceptance of the presence of others. “It’s more complicated when the presence is less obvious.
The primacy of Islam
If the official rhetoric of the country has always been that of openness and religious pluralism, Islam remains a constitutional and institutional reference, adds Vincent Geisser, researcher at the CNRS and the Institute for Research and Studies on the Arab Worlds and Muslims (IREMAM). “We are often mistaken in saying that Tunisia is a secular country,” says the researcher, who recalls that successive constitutions have always had “Islam as their main reference”.
This is also the case of the latest, adopted on July 25, 2022, in which Tunisia officially abandons Islam as the state religion but adds in article 5 that the country is “a part of the Islamic nation », of the Oumma therefore, whose religion is Islam. “The reference to Islam in Tunisia occupies a major and dominant place compared to other religions”, sums up Vincent Geisser, despite a “real attachment to Jewish history and heritage and to the figure of Saint Augustine”.
This dichotomy is found in the field, specifies the CNRS researcher. “We find this tolerance and this openness, but Islam remains the pillar of social, cultural and of course religious life,” he concludes.