Tunisia’s Catholics Support Democracy

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Tunisia’s tiny Catholic community prays for the country’s transition to democracy and hopes that the nation will embrace full religious freedom, said Archbishop Maroun Lahham of Tunis.

“We are certainly for the separation of ‘mosque and state,’ but we say clearly that a healthy democratic society must have as its foundation values that, whatever anyone says, have a religious root: freedom, respect, peace, equality, the preferential option for the poor, solidarity,” the archbishop said.

The archbishop wrote a pastoral letter on the attitude that Tunisia’s 22,000 Catholics — all of whom are foreigners — should have toward the North African country’s political and social changes. Tunisia’s authoritative government was overthrown in January and a process of democratization began.

Vatican Radio reported on the archbishop’s letter July 14.

For Christians, Archbishop Lahham said, the first wish “is to see the country finally arrive at a democratic regime. It is clear that a revolution is one thing, and a successful democratic transition is another.”

Although released in late June, Archbishop Lahham’s letter was dated July 24, the date originally scheduled for elections to the committee to draft a new constitution. The elections now are scheduled for October.

The constitution must be drafted and approved in a referendum before normal elections can be held to choose a legislature and a president, he said. The process is expected to take two years, which sounds like a long time, but “is nothing in the history of a nation, especially when dealing with such a radical change,” he wrote.

As part of a religious community that makes up less than 1 percent of Tunisia’s population and is composed of noncitizens, Catholics in the country are called to be prayerful, supportive and humble witnesses of how God’s spirit is at work, he said.

“The vocation of the church is to love the world as God loves it, to see the world as God sees it,” he said.

Christians in Tunisia are called to live their faith and to “show with our lives the gift God has given us in Jesus Christ, but also to discover the life of this nation and its cultural and religious traditions,” he said. They should rejoice over the fact that Tunisians are acquiring the rights and freedoms they were denied for decades and that there is greater space for good neighborly relations between Muslims and Christians.

While the pro-democracy demonstrations across North Africa and other parts of the Arab world led to tensions and, in Tunisia and other places, to fears that fundamentalist Muslim parties would rise to power, Archbishop Lahham said Christians cannot be paralyzed by fear.

“Let us be ourselves, ready ‘to account for the hope within us.’ We are in Tunisia to reveal the face of Christ through the witness of our lives, our words and actions. Besides, that’s what the Tunisians expect of us,” he wrote.

Vatican Radio said that while there are no strong fears of terrorist attacks on Christians, the archbishop has asked the government to increase security around the 11 Catholic churches in the country after failed attempts June 24 to set a church on fire and July 9 to set a Catholic school on fire.

A man described as having psychiatric problems was arrested and charged with both arson attempts, which occurred in the town of Sousse, the radio reported.

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