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Tunisia: “Significant increase in hate speech against religious minorities”

Women are the most targeted by harassment online, says the Attalaki Association. The media should be an example of “adhering to impartiality and professionalism when dealing with topics related to religious minorities”.

FUENTES Protestante Digital AUTOR 45/Jonatan_Soriano,5/Evangelical_Focus TUNIS 29 DE SEPTIEMBRE DE 2023 15:57 h
Façade of the Catholic church of Saint Vincent de Paul, Tunisia. / Photo: [link] Adrian Dascal[/link], Unsplash CC0.

Discrimination on religious grounds seems to be on the rise in Tunisia.



In its second Annual Report on Religious Freedom, with data relating to the period between January and December 2022, the Attalaki Association identified 122 cases of discrimination and hate speech, 55 of which involved some form of hostility against individuals because of their religious beliefs.



Rashed Massoud Hafnaoui, president of Attalaki, explains to Spanish news website Protestante Digital that “the cases documented in this report do not fully reflect the reality of religious minorities, and the discrimination committed against them for several considerations”.



The primary concern is the limited capacity to reach marginalized groups and so document instances of discrimination, “both past and potential”, says Hafnaoui.



Moreover, there is a “lack of consistent monitoring and official data collection to track the status of those communities, who live on the margin of the law and society, rendering them highly susceptible to discrimination and rights violations”.



According to Attalaki, although “Tunisia does not have an official census of the country's religious components”, it is possible to speak of over 95% of the population identifying as Sunni Muslim.



Barely 100,000 people are Shi'a, and between 1,500 and 2,000 are Jewish, most of them living on the island of Djerba. “The estimated number of Tunisian Christians is between 3,000 and 5,000, most of them belonging to evangelical churches”, the report states. The Roman Catholic Church has approximately 25,000 members, although most of them are foreign residents.



“The concept of religious freedom and societal acceptance of the idea of changing one's religion remains a complex issue, despite its inclusion in the Constitution. This is largely due to the significant lack of awareness about the importance of this right within Tunisian society”, points out Hafnaoui. “It is not possible to speak of progress in religious freedom in Tunisia, since there is a prevailing notion of non-acceptance of this right among the majority of the population. For many, allowing religious freedom is seen as a challenge to the beliefs of the majority”.



 



Increased hostility against the Christian minority



26 out of the 55 cases of discrimination on religious grounds are against Christians, the most targeted group, a number higher than in the 2021 report. Atheists and agnostics (18), and Shiites (7) also suffered discrimination.



Attalaki suggests that there are more cases that either could not be recorded or the person did not reveal their religious belief.



Family members of the victims are the ones reported as responsible for more cases of discrimination (32). They also highlight the area of social media (17) and even include a case related to a public institution and another to a private company.



The organisation only relates two cases to police authorities, although it points out that “this is due to the fact that victims do not register their complaints because they fear the reaction of the officers when they hear their cause”.





[photo_footer] Tunisia, according to its Constitution, is an Islamic nation. / Juan Ordoñez, Unsplash. [/photo_footer] 


 



Women, especially vulnerable



Attalaki explains that most cases of religious discrimination recorded (37) are suffered by women.



“These women have experienced various forms of mistreatment, including sexual harassment, psychological coercion, abuse, and online threats, often originating from their own families and on social media platforms”, Hafnaoui stresses.



The association's report shows that the main form of discrimination is “psychological pressure” (32 cases), sometimes leading to suicide attempts, they say.



That is followed by verbal attacks (13) and sexual harassment (9). Four cases of physical violence, one deportation and one travel ban have also been reported.



 



Social media, a favourite space for discrimination



According to Attalaki, social media are the channel through which most cases of discrimination against religious minorities take place (23).



That is followed by offences against religious images and symbols (13), associations (4), universities (4) and websites (4). News platforms, newspapers and television stations together account for 6 cases.



In its report, the association mentions the example of a Christian woman who participated in a radio program and then suffered “massive electronic harassment through comments on a publication on the official website of the radio station”. The number of comments exceeded 2,300 and 98% were threats and insults that caused the woman a severe state of panic.



Another example relates to a report aired on the Elhiwar Ettounsi television station in which a journalist claimed that there were many sub-Saharan house churches where their followers practised magic.



The president of Attalaki agrees that “there is a significant increase in hate speech against religious minorities on social media. This hate speech is primarily propagated by religious leaders and media platforms affiliated with known political entities”.



That is why the association, in its recommendations section, “invites the media to adhere to impartiality and professionalism when dealing with topics related to religion or to religious minorities, and not to be led by the 'Buzz culture' that may be a reason for the spread of hate speech and grudges, either intentionally or unintentionally”.





[photo_footer] President Kaïs Saied came to power after the 2019 elections and dissolved the national parliament in 2021 / Quirinale, Wikimedia Commons. [/photo_footer] 



 



“Stop diffusing hate based on religion”



In its report, Attalaki also includes recommendations for religious and intellectual leaders in Tunisian society. It asks them to “stop diffusing hate and discrimination speech based on differences in religion, belief, or opinion” and “to stop confusing people's rights to choose their religious beliefs or affiliations with everything related to politics”.



They also call them to “urge your supporters and followers to refrain from rhetoric that incites violence and religious hatred, and to adhere to peaceful dialogue, as an essential means for the advancement of society”.



 



Where does religious freedom fit into new Tunisian Constitution?



Tunisia has a new Constitution since 2022, the third since independence, after the current president, Kaïs Saied, won the 2019 elections and dissolved parliament in 2021.



The new Constitution has kept the official status of Islam as the state religion, but “it has preserved the right to freedom of conscience, belief, and worship”, explains Hafnaoui.



As Attalaki had previously advocated for, “these provisions have been moved from the General Provisions section to the section on Rights and Freedoms, which we believe is an important and positive step”.



 



Recommendations to the Tunisian government and Parliament



In its report, Attalaki also includes a series of recommendations to the Tunisian government regarding freedom of religion and conscience.



It appeals to the Presidency of the government and the ministries of Religious Affairs, and Interior and Local Affairs to “regulate the religious services organized by unrecognized groups, to prevent them from being prosecuted, according to article 28 of the Rights and Freedoms chapter”.



For Attalaki that “is crucial because religious gatherings, regardless of the faith, such as Evangelical Christians or Baha'is, held by Tunisian nationals, currently lack state protection and formal licenses”.



They also call on the government to “grant the necessary licenses, to the religious minorities, to obtain places to worship and bury the dead, as it says in Article 23, which guarantees full equality between male and female citizens”.



Furthermore, the report recommends the Parliament to “enact an organic law that consolidates freedom of faith and conscience, protects religious minority rights, and criminalizes hate speech delivered on the basis of religion”.



Attalaki was one of the groups involved in the signing of the first national agreement for peaceful coexistence in February 2022. There were also representatives of the Evangelical Church in Tunisia, as well as other religious minorities, such as Baha'is, Shi'is, Jews and members of the Sufi branch of Islam.



You can read the full report here.



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