The constitution declares the country’s religion to be Islam but also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and obligates the state to disseminate the values of “moderation and tolerance.” It prohibits the use of mosques and houses of worship to advance political agendas or objectives, and guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practice. The Bahai community’s application to form a legal association was twice denied by the prime ministry, which the group said was due to the word “Bahai” in the association’s name. The prime minister’s office ordered a suspension of the Islamic Hizb al-Tahrir political party (Liberation Party) which was overturned by an administrative court. The office brought a subsequent criminal case against the party, which was being heard in military court. There were reports the government profiled Salafists and others as terrorists based on their appearance then detained and beat them, with one nongovernmental organization (NGO) saying some were tortured. The government continued to allow the Jewish and Christian communities to worship freely.
Christian converts from Islam said threats of violence from members of their families and other persons reflected societal pressure against Muslims leaving the faith.
The U.S. Ambassador, embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. government officials met with government officials, including at the Ministry of Religious Affairs; the Presidency of the Government; and the Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society, and Human Rights, to encourage continued tolerance of religious minorities. U.S. officials also discussed the government’s efforts to control activities in mosques as well as threats to converts from Islam to other faiths. Embassy officers discussed religious diversity and dialogue with leaders of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. On May 25, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and the U.S. Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia participated in the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba, where they discussed religious pluralism and the safety of the Jewish community with Jewish leaders and civil society.
The government twice denied the application to form an association submitted by members of the Bahai Faith because the association had the word “Bahai” in its name, according to association members. In response, officials from the Prime Ministry said that the inclusion of the word “Bahai” in the association’s name comprised a claim to represent all members of the Bahai Faith, which runs counter to the law on associations.
Salafists said the police profile them on suspicion of terrorism during the Government of Tunisia’s continued state of emergency following the 2015 Bardo museum attack because of their dress and long beards, which they said they wore to emulate the Prophet Muhammad. The Tunisian Rights and Freedoms Observatory documented several cases in 2016 in which security forces assaulted and restricted travelers because of their appearance. In August, Abdrahman Mejri was traveling in a collective taxi to visit his family when a police patrol stopped the vehicle during a routine check, asked him for his ID, handcuffed and took him to the police station. He was later released after a four-hour interrogation. He said the incident was based on his appearance. In September a local soccer coach, Mohamed Aziz Siala was suspended from his job for having a beard. Siala told The Rights and Freedoms Observatory that his supervisor called Siala to the supervisor’s office to inform him of the decision, saying that firing him had nothing to do with his job performance, but came from the owner of the club who was asked by the Ministry of Interior to dismiss Siala. Amnesty International reported the police targeted these individuals and then detained and at times tortured them. The media also reported some women who chose to wear the niqab experienced harassment from police and security forces.
The government publicly urged imams to disseminate messages of moderation and tolerance to counter what it said were threats of violent extremism. During the annual Mouled conference, part of an annual festival held during the week of the Prophet’s birthday, on December 3 the Minister of Justice and acting Minister of Religious Affairs Ghazi Jeribi stressed the need to “learn the lessons of humanitarian values and principles of Islam.” The imam of the Okba Ibn Nafaa mosque in Kairouan Taieb Ghozi spoke of the strong connection between Islam and universal human rights. The conference was attended by government officials, party presidents, the grand mufti, and senior officials and imams from the MRA.
According to several local mosque committees in charge of mosque operations and chosen by congregation members, the government generally allowed the committees to manage the daily affairs of their mosques and choose their own imams, with the exception of imams for Friday prayers, who were selected exclusively by the MRA. Regional MRA representatives within each governorate had to vet, approve, and appoint both the committees and the imams. According to an official from the MRA, the government standardized and enforced mosque opening and closing times, except for mosques with cultural or historical significance and very small community mosques.
Jewish groups said the government continued to allow the Jewish community to worship freely and paid the salary of the grand rabbi. Members of the Christian community reported the government allowed Christian churches to operate freely.
The government continued to provide security for synagogues and partially subsidized restoration and maintenance costs. Government employees maintained the Jewish cemetery in Tunis.
Authorities said they had increased security for a festival held at the El-Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba in May following advice from the Government of Israel to Jewish pilgrims not to attend because of threats against the festival. At the request of the Jewish community in Djerba, the government installed additional security cameras and personnel around the El-Ghriba Synagogue which operate year-round.
The government continued to permit the Jewish community to operate private religious schools and allowed Jewish children to split their academic day between public schools and private religious schools or go fulltime to either. The government-run Essouani School and the Houmt Souk Secondary School in Djerba remained the only public schools where Jewish and Muslim students studied together. At these schools, Muslim students attended Islamic education lessons on Saturdays while their Jewish classmates could choose to attend classes on religion at a Jewish school in Djerba.
In June the government ordered the suspension of the annual conference of the Islamic Hizb al-Tahrir political party, stating the congress posed a “threat to the public order” because of the party’s advocacy for an installation of an Islamic caliphate in the country. An administrative court overturned the decision. The government then suspended the conference under the state of emergency law, stating the conference could cause a threat to public security. On August 16, an administrative court ordered a 30-day suspension of the party’s activities, which the government stated were violating the 2011 Law of Associations. Those articles the court found the party violated stipulate associations shall, by their bylaws, activities, and funding, observe the principles of the rule of law, democracy, plurality, transparency, equality, and human rights as stipulated in international agreements ratified by the country. The court further found the party violated articles that prohibit associations from adopting in their bylaws, programs, or activities that incite violence, hatred, fanaticism, or discrimination on religious, racial, or regional grounds. An administrative court overturned the suspension on August 30 for “procedural irregularities.” In September the government brought a criminal case against the party, stating it had incited jihad and advocated violence. A prosecutor referred the case to a military court. Representatives from the party refused to participate in the court hearings. The case against the party remained pending at year end.
Some Christians reported civil procedures for marriage, divorce, and inheritance contained elements of Islamic practice that were not applicable to their faith. The Tunisian Association for Support of Minorities (ATSM) reported at least 10 cases during the last year in which Muslim women were denied requests to marry non-Muslims unless they officially converted to Islam. At an August 16 press conference, ATSM publicly complained about the country’s legal restrictions against interfaith marriage, claiming it was inconsistent with the constitution to forbid marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man.