Religious minorities put faith in Tunisia's democracy

Tunis, Tunisia - Minority Jews and Christians are putting their faith in Tunisia's nascent democracy to ensure its new Islamist-led leadership respects their rights in this traditionally secular state.

Religious minorities in the Arab world have mostly lost out when dictators are toppled and radical Islamists exploit the power vacuum to attack non-Muslims. The targeting of Christians in Iraq and Egypt constitutes a frightening example.

Tunisia, birthplace of the first Arab Spring uprising, stands as a cautious exception. Minorities are staying here and hoping for the best.

"The Tunisian people, including the Jews, have understood that democracy is the best solution for everybody," said Khelifa Attoun, a Tunis businessman who is vice-president of the local Jewish community.

"The democratic spirit is there," said the Jordanian-born Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tunis, Maroun Lahham.

"This is not Iran, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia - it's not Switzerland or Sweden either," he said. "This will be a real Arab democracy, with a Muslim colouring."

Their cautious optimism echoed comments by Muslim analysts who expect Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that won 41.7 percent of the October 23 vote for a new assembly, to substantiate its claim that Islam and democracy are compatible.

"Ennahda is not going to throw away this opportunity that history has given it," said Sofiane Ben Farhat, a senior editor at the daily La Presse de Tunisie.


Tunisia's religious minorities are tiny. There are only about 30,000 Christians, almost all foreigners of European and sub-Saharan African origin, and fewer than 2,000 Jews in a community that dates back to the Roman Empire.

The outlook for them was not reassuring in the weeks after autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fell on January 14. A synagogue in the southern city of Ghabes was set ablaze on February 1.

Two weeks later, several dozen radical Muslims massed outside the Tunis Grand Synagogue chanting "Allahu Akbar" and "The army of Mohammad is returning". Four days after that, a Polish priest was found murdered at his Catholic school in Tunis.

But civil society responded with a 15,000-strong protest march down Tunis's main avenue on February 19 chanting "Terrorism is not Tunisian" and "Religion is personal."

Police were posted behind barbed wire at the Tunis synagogue and at a Jewish nursing home in a Tunis suburb.

It eventually emerged that Rev. Marek Rybinski was murdered by a staff member after a wage dispute. Jewish leaders said the Ghabes synagogue attack looked like a provocation by supporters of the deposed dictator.

"There was unrest for the first two months, but then the government was able to calm things down," said Tunis jeweller Yonathan Rakkah after an evening prayer in the synagogue.

In early April, Israel announced a financial aid package for Tunisian Jews it said were in distress and eager to emigrate. Tunis Jews said only a handful took up the offer.


Still, security concerns persisted. In May, only about 100 Jewish pilgrims visited the famous synagogue in Djerba for Lag BaOmer, a holiday following Passover that usually attracts 5,000 Jews from Tunisia, France, Israel and other countries.

During the campaign for the October 23 election for Tunisia's new democratic assembly, moderate Islamists in the Ennahda party promised to maintain the country's secular state and respect human rights, women's rights and other freedoms.

Among the 10,000 candidates was one Jew, kosher restaurant owner Gilles Jacob Lellouche from the Tunis port area of La Goulette, where many Jews live.

"I wanted to break the taboo that someone from a minority can't get involved in politics," said Lellouche, who was not elected. "People saw me as a citizen who was getting involved. It all went very well."

The Ennahda candidate in La Goulette visited the Jewish nursing home to reassure the residents and party leader Rachid Ghannouchi met the Tunis community's leader.

The smooth voting process and the fact that Ennahda fell short of a majority, forcing it to seek a coalition with two secular parties, seems to have reassured the minorities.

"Ennahda will have to follow the moderate Tunisian tradition. Jews have no problem with Ennahda, only with the salafists," Attoun said, referring to the minority of radical Islamists. "But Ennahda won't let them do what they want."

"Everybody is watching Ennahda and knows what they have promised," Lahham said. "If they want to change anything, the street is there to protest."

A senior Western diplomat in touch with Jewish communities around the country said they were not getting ready to leave.

"Ennahda has gone out of its way to reassure the Jewish community," he said.

"It's in Ennahda's interest both as a political party and as the leader of the next government of Tunisia to show that this tradition of tolerance continues."