This report is contributed by Oliver Maksan of Aid to the Church in Need.
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In the wake of a terrorist attack on tourists in Tunisia on June 26—which killed 38 people—one of the country’s leading Catholic priests insists that the majority of Tunisians are not extremists.
“The government also does not want an Islamic sharia state–on the contrary,” said Father Sergio Perez, who is in charge of St. Vincent de Paul cathedral in the capital city of Tunis, in an interview with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
“I believe that this is the very reason why the jihadists want to hurt Tunisia, a country that, despite many restrictions, is well on its way to democracy and stability,” said the Argentine priest who is a member of the Institute of the Incarnate Word.
“In all likelihood, they do not want other Arab countries to see a model that is working. This goal can best be achieved by striking there where the Tunisian economy is at its most vulnerable: tourism,” he said, noting that the attack has sent tourists fleeing the country, which “will have serious consequences for the country’s economy, which is already suffering.”
“The Christians of Tunisia are of course shocked by the massacre. Some are also afraid. However, I trust in the authorities. They now want to keep the cathedral or the bishop, far from becoming the target of a jihadist attack at all costs. Such an attack would be devastating for the reputation of the country. This is why they have taken all the necessary security measures.”
A terror attack at the Bardo Museum last March, which killed 20 people, had already triggered increased vigilance of authorities in the capital. Some 80 mosques whose preachers were calling for violence have been closed.
Catholics form the largest single denomination in Tunisia. There are Protestant and Orthodox communities as well. In all, there are an estimated 25,000 Christians in a population of 11 million. “It is true that the Catholic Church in Tunisia is mostly comprised of foreigners. However, the Church feels as though it is part of the history and future of this country,” the priest said.
The Church—whose schools and hospitals are held in high esteem in Tunisian society—has legal status in the country. But there are significant restrictions in that “active proselytism” is not allowed, but “we can carry out our Church mission,” said Father Perez, adding that “the political transition after the fall of the dictatorship largely went according to plan. The new constitution not only guarantees freedom of worship—it also provides for complete freedom of conscience.”
“However, theory is one thing, practice is another. A Muslim who shows an interest in Christianity is placed under strong social pressure. Even so, time and again a number of Tunisian Muslims dare to take this step and take part in our prayers and charitable works.”
The priest said that interest in Christianity is alive, not only because of the persecutions against Christians by ISIS, but also because of the international attention given to Pope Francis.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)