“Thanks to Pope Francis, people are interested in Christianity”
by Oliver Maksan, ACN International
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
“The Catholic Church in Tunisia can do its work without political problems, thank God. The authorities know that we have nothing to hide and that our charitable institutions are here to serve the Tunisian people,” Father Sergio Perez commented during a talk with the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). The Argentine belongs to the religious order “Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE).” He has been working as the parish priest of the Cathedral of Tunis for the last four years. “The Catholic Church is the only religious community in the country that has an agreement with the state. It was concluded by the Holy See and the state of Tunisia in the 1960s. It gives us legal certainty, but also brings restrictions. According to this Modus vivendi, we are not allowed to make public expressions of the Catholic Faith such as processions or the like. On the whole, this agreement prohibits any form of proselytising.”
Father Sergio considers the country’s new constitution, which was approved in January of this year, as progress. “It not only guarantees freedom of worship, but also real freedom of conscience. This includes religious conversions, such as those from Islam to Christianity. This would be inconceivable in many Islamic countries. Of course, theory is one thing and practice another. But these are still very new policies. We will have to see how things develop.” For some time now, Father Sergio has been noticing a growing interest in Christianity in Tunisia. “Thanks to Pope Francis, more and more people are becoming interested, especially those that follow Islam more for cultural than for religious reasons. This is also true in Algeria and other countries.”
Father Sergio does view the large number of Tunisians who have joined jihadist groups with concern. “However, we Christians have not felt any threats from jihadists yet. They are directed more towards Tunisians who are considered too liberal.” Jihadism comes from abroad and actually has no roots in Tunisia, Father Sergio emphasized.
According to Father Sergio, the composition of the country’s Christian community, which is almost exclusively made up of foreigners, has greatly changed in the last few years. “This has something to do with the fact that several hundred Christian families from Sub-Saharan Africa have left the country with the African Development Bank. They had temporarily settled here in Tunisia after being forced to leave the Ivory Coast in 2003 for reasons of safety. The Bank has now returned to the Ivory Coast and taken its Christian employees with it. A number of our parishes have felt this deeply. However, we still have many Christian students here from Sub-Saharan Africa, to whom we provide pastoral care.”
The Catholic Church is the largest individual church in Tunisia. In Tunis, the church is represented by an archbishop. Various religious orders help to further the charitable mission of the Church and maintain schools, student residence halls and medical facilities. There are also smaller Protestant as well as Orthodox communities. In 2012, the number of Christians was estimated to be about 25,000, about 20,000 of these Catholics. There are no official figures.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been supporting the Church in Tunisia in its mission for years. This year, the Sisters of the order “Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara (SSVM)” were able to purchase a new car with the help of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).