Tunisia – where the ‘Arab Spring’ began
The death of Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi in January 2011 sparked a flame of protests across the Arab world. Many were stunned as long-entrenched Arab leaders fled or died.
Violence and civil war today continues in Syria. But how is Tunisia doing? How did the fledgling Tunisian church respond after the January 2011 revolution?
Tunisian Christians reacted in many different ways to the events that led to elections in their country. A local believer observed that during that time they saw people for who they really are. Many of the believers were scared and several left Christian fellowship altogether, saying that they did not feel safe.
Quite a few of the believers though have been emboldened. Soon after the July 2011 election, two Tunisian Christian women were quoted on an online magazine site that they were confident in God regardless of who won the election.
Both women gave their names and declared they were Tunisian Christians. ‘We were very encouraged’, said the Arab World Ministries (AWM) missionaries, despite the fact that the total number of those in regular fellowship has not grown.
New Tunisian believers are emerging from fearful isolation. One man completed some Bible correspondence courses, but was afraid of contacting other Christians. He finally contacted an AWM worker and has been meeting with him to talk about his story and the Scriptures.
Another woman watched Christian television programmes for 10 years and has sought out other Christians just this year. Six years ago, this woman returned home disillusioned from a trip to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
She heard a knock on her door and heard someone call, ‘It’s me. Let me in and I will eat with you’.
She went to the door and found no one. This happened several times with the same result. This lady was very moved when she met a Tunisian Christian who read the words of Jesus from Revelation 3:20: ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me’.
Tunisia was home to hundreds of Christians in the second century, particularly in the city of Carthage. After Islam swept across North Africa in the seventh century, the church disappeared until the 1800s. Today, the Tunisian church is comprised only of believers from a Muslim background.
For the past several years, Tunisian Christians have preferred using public buildings over house churches. They like both the identity it provides and the anonymity from friends and family.
They rightly point out that it is a great way to evangelise, being public and easier to invite seekers to. Church meetings in houses look covert and somehow wrong.
Church leaders cannot predict where Tunisia is going and realise that things could become hostile for believers. The moderate Islamic party Nahda won last summer’s elections and made many promises about protecting freedom of religion.
The next elections are in early 2013, so the hope is that the Nahda party’s efforts to write a new constitution will be in place by then.
Islamic fundamentalists are attempting to assert themselves as the ‘moral police’. Earlier this year, Middle East Concern reported that a ‘self-appointed religious police’ force was granted legal status in Tunisia. Its objectives include calling on Tunisians to follow sharia law.
In one city, some Islamic fundamentalists tried to amputate the hand of a thief, and have attacked bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Police response was swift, so the hope is that these trouble makers will disappear.
In another town, some Salafist students were suspended for 6-12 months, but returned the next day and damaged the dean’s office. Tunisian Christians and foreign Christian workers in Tunisia called people to pray for Tunisia for seven years.
That season of prayer ended at the same time that Bouazizi lit himself in protest, which was the catalyst for the ‘Arab Spring’. Christian workers in Tunisia feel an increasing need to pray for this country. Prayer requests can be found at www.pray4tunisia.com