Bahá’í – Minority Rights Group

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Although they probably number in the hundreds, the exact number of Baha’is in Tunisia is unknown. As the denomination is not recognized by the state, official figures are not available and community representatives themselves are reluctant to produce estimates, as many remain unknown.

The lack of recognition also results in the absence of a gathering place and a higher degree of discrimination against Tunisian Jews and Christians. For these reasons, it is difficult for Baha’is to engage with one another, but Facebook seems to be the most widely used platform.

Historical context

The Baha’i Faith is believed to have been introduced to Tunisia in 1921 by Mohieddine Kurdi. Bahá’ís have no clergy but are organized into local and national Spiritual Assemblies consisting of nine congregants (male and female), a sacred number in the Bahá’í Faith.

Nonetheless, the community reported ongoing harassment and discrimination. In 2008, a fatwa was issued by the Tunisian Mufti against the Bahá’í Faith, with lasting implications for the community. As their faith is not recognized, Baha’is cannot register as a religious community, and so they have undertaken efforts to register as a civil society organization.

In particular, the community had three cases. In 2012, the Baha’i Association of Tunisia attempted to register as a civil association advocating non-discrimination, equality and unity. Their request was refused by the Prime Minister due to the inclusion of “Bahá’í” in the name (with the justification that civil associations are not supposed to be religious in nature, even though there are several Muslim civil associations ). They went to the Administrative Court to appeal against this decision and they then started proceedings for the same case before the Court of First Instance. Their file was rejected there on the grounds that the decision rests with the Prime Minister. At the end of 2017, the community sent a letter to the President of the Republic, the Speaker of Parliament and the Prime Minister, denouncing the discrimination the community faces and asking for official recognition of its faith, in particular the National Spiritual Assembly. The submission follows an incident in September 2017 when a 20-year-old Baha’i was taken from his home near Monastir by police and interrogated for several hours about his religion.

Finally in 2020, the community received a positive judgment on the first verdict of the administrative court to register as a civil society organization UDD (Unity in Diversity), without mention of Baha’ism in its name.

Current affairs

Tunisian Baha’is are active in civil society and work within the framework of equality of citizens, organizing events focused on coexistence. Their main demand is the right to organize and operate legally. Not being recognized means not being able to have a bank account, organize a fundraiser for the community, or establish facilities to educate their children in the Bahá’í Faith. The community has also petitioned the Minister of Local Affairs to establish a Baha’i cemetery but has yet to receive a response.

The Bahá’í marriage contract, recognized in several countries, is not recognized in Tunisia, but they can register civil marriages like all other Tunisians. Many, because they want to operate underground, contact the municipality before their marriage and inform them that they are Baha’is. Some municipalities then refuse to perform the civil marriage, and they must then look elsewhere until they find one that agrees to perform the act. To date, they have identified the municipalities most open to the community. Regarding inheritance, they follow Tunisian law like other citizens, but they can enter into private contracts if they wish to distribute equal shares between their male and female children, as many Muslims in Tunisia also do.

In March 2021, they filed a complaint with the public prosecutor at the Tunis court of first instance against the Prime Minister, the Minister of Religious Affairs, the Mufti of the Republic and the Secretary General of the Government after the publication of minutes and letters refusing to publish the organization’s declaration of incorporation. The Baha’i Association of Tunisia received a preliminary judgment in its favor by the Administrative Court, which was appealed by the President of the Government in the first judgment. According to the Baha’i Association’s complaint, the government’s appeal contained accusations that could seriously threaten the lives of members of the Association. This was due to the fact that these documents contained arguments taken from the 2008 fatwa mentioned above by the Mufti of the Republic and by the Minister of Religious Affairs, as well as an advisory opinion from the International Institute of Islamic Jurisprudence, which contained accusations of blasphemy/unbelief (tafkir) against members of the Association because of their Baha’i religion.

Updated November 2021

About Wesley V. Finley

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