The arrival of Christianity in Tunisia is linked to the arrival of Christianity in North Africa. Christianity reached Mediterranean Africa in the second century AD, and developed greatly until the fifth-sixth century.
In the fourth century, 150 dioceses were established in the territory of current Tunisia, and 600 throughout North Africa. Half of the Christians existing in the world in the fifth century, allegedly lived in Mediterranean Africa, such as Augustine, Cyprian, Felicity, Perpetua, Tertullian, just to mention a few famous names.
When the Arabs arrived in North Africa in the sixth century, the Church was already divided by Christological disputes and weakened by the invasions of the Vandals and the Byzantines. The invasions of the Almohads, coming from Morocco, put an end to Christianity in North Africa in the twelfth century. The situation did not change under the Ottoman rule in the 16th century. From the 12th to the 19th centuries, the Christian religion in North Africa was practiced only by foreigners. During the 18th and 19th century, North Africa was colonized by France. The French introduced their language, culture, religion and priests and nuns arrived in the region. At that time, Tunisia had two and a half million inhabitants, the Catholics were 350,000 and they were only French people. This situation remained unchanged until 1956, when Tunisia gained independence under the leadership of Habib Bourkiba.
After independence, almost all foreigners left the country, including Catholic priests and nuns, and only few of them stayed. In 1964 a modus vivendi between Tunisia and the Holy Sea was ratified. The agreement was signed “to promote harmony between the Catholic Church and the Tunisian State”. In accordance with the agreement, 99 churches, 49 religious houses were given to the Tunisian State (the buildings were used as cultural centres or libraries),as well as 907 hectares of agricultural and urban land. For its part, the Catholic Church took care above all that the agreement ensure the necessary conditions for the presence and the free organizations and the fruitful activity of the Church in Tunisia. By terms of the agreement, the Tunisian government pledged to assist Catholics in the exercise of their worship in the country, and this included the use of chapels in Catholic institutions and the autonomous management of private teaching and hospital buildings.
The Church today
Christians are currently 25-30,000 out of the 11 million population and are of almost 80 different nationalities. Eighty-five/ninety percent are Catholics. The diocese has 10 parishes and 40 priests, 10 of whom are based in Tunisia, the others are missionaries, religious or “fidei donum” missionaries. The women religious are130, divided into 25 communities.
“Ours is an apostolate of spiritual witness,” says Mons. Ilario Antoniazzi, Archbishop of Tunis. “We are not supposed to do a work of evangelization because the so-called Modus Vivendi agreement, does not allow it,” Msgr. Antoniazzi explains to us.” Besides, in 1964 most of the churches belonging to the Catholic community of Tunisia were ceded to the State. We currently own only 10 churches and 8 Catholic schools”, adds the Archbishop.
“We cannot even buy or cede buildings, or receive donations. An example: if a religious congregation decides to shut down a convent in Tunisia, the building cannot be given to the Archbishop but it is nationalized.”
“However all this does not jeopardize our good and harmonious relationship with the Tunisian people,” says Mgr. Antoniazzi “. “Our community is mainly made up of foreigners, most of whom are students and workers from sub-Saharan Africa. Ours is a pastoral challenge, since every year, about a quarter of the faithful, leave our community to go back to their countries once they have completed their studies or because their employment contract has expired. Newcomers often replace those who left, so our community is renewed every four years,” says Msgr. Antoniazzi.
“It is not easy, therefore, to make long-term pastoral planning: we plant seeds, but there is not time enough to pick up the fruits. I always tell those leaving our community not to forget all the good things Tunisia gave them, and also the spiritual ones.” The Catholic community in Tunisia wants to be a discreet and attentive presence, through witness of solidarity and charity in the Tunisian society. Caritas is strongly committed to helping the growing number of the poor people and the immigrants from sub- Saharan Africa who ask for help while waiting to find a way to reach Europe.
An aspect to be underlined, is the long tradition of cultural dialogue with the Tunisian elite thanks to the Institute of Arab Beautiful Letters (IBLA) of the White Fathers and the Carthage Centre for Studies with its rich libraries. Not to mention the importance of the official talks which took place at the University Centre for Economic and Social Research, and at the Muslim University, on the occasion of Pope John Paul II’s visit on 14 April, 1996. (Micol Briziobello)