Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings, voted last week to approve a new constitution that rejects Sharia law and includes some protection for Christians and other religious minorities.
Laying the foundation for a new democracy, it is one of the most progressive constitutions in the Arab world and includes protections for citizens’ rights, protection from torture, the right to due process, and freedom of worship. The elected assembly took two years to write it.
Before the final vote, World Watch Monitor (WWM) reported that secularists and Christians welcomed the document, although some desired more clarity. French President Francois Hollande praised the democratic process that led to the constitution and hoped Tunisia’s example “could inspire other countries,” like Egypt.
Although Article 1e of the new constitution declares Islam the “religion of the State,” Sharia law is not being imposed, to the chagrin of many Salafi Muslims who protested in March 2012, demanding a constitution based on Sharia law.
Some Islamist members of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) were outraged at the recent addition of the phrase “prohibits any form of accusation of apostasy and incitement to violence,” to Article 6 of the constitution, according to Tunisia Live. That would provide protection from takfir, the Islamic practice of accusing people of being unbelievers.
“I’m against any call for people to kill others,” Noomane Fehri, an NCA member with the Afek Tounes party, told Tunisia Live. “I’m against takfir because it’s a call to kill.”
The controversial Article 6 guarantees “freedom of belief and conscience,” which would permit atheism and the practice of non-Abrahamic religions frowned upon in other Islamic countries.
Robert Zaretsky, a history professor at the University of Houston, wrote in the Jewish Daily Forward, “it seems clear that the curve of current events in Tunisia favors the country’s small but significant Jewish and Christian communities.” According to WWM, there are between 25,000 and 30,000 Christians in Tunisia, mainly Catholics, Reformed, Anglicans, and Orthodox. There are about 1,500 Jews, according to the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
Catholics in Tunisia praised the new constitution. Father Nicolas Lhernoud, vicar general of the Archdiocese of the Catholic Church in Tunis, told WWM, “We see the respect of every person, whatever his belief, as the foundation of moral legitimacy and every social and legal standard.”
Yet others don’t think the constitution goes far enough in ensuring that religious freedoms would be protected. Todd Daniels, regional manager for the Middle East with International Christian Concern, said, “It’s made some advances in protections for religious minorities, but doesn’t necessarily go far enough.”
Open Doors’ World Watch List ranks Tunisia at 30 on this year’s 50 most persecuted countries list because of persecution from Islamic extremists.