The following feature is the first story in “Tunisia’s Spiritual Pluralism,” a recurring series Tunisia Live will be running about religious minorities in the country.
Although members of the Baha’i faith say they have not been overtly persecuted by the Tunisian state, they nonetheless often feel socially marginalized and excluded.
“Some colleagues of mine stopped talking to me once they knew I was Baha’i, even though I had a good relationship with them,” said Jamal, 63, a Tunisian Baha’i who is now retired.
Although Baha’ism is considered one of the fastest growing religions today, its followers often face harassment and persecution, especially in the Muslim world. One of the most high-profile cases has been that of the Baha’i community in Iran that was massacred by the Islamist regime.
In Tunisia, the state tolerates Baha’ism and allows its practice, even though it considers the religion to be heretical.
“Baha’ism is not new in Tunisia. It has existed for over a century now,” according to Nizar, a representative of the Baha’i media office in Tunisia. “It originally came with Egyptian Baha’is who visited Tunisia early last century.”
Founded in the nineteenth century, Baha’ism spread in Iran under the guidance and leadership of Bab and then Baha’u'llah, whom the Baha’is consider to be a prophet. Baha’ists believe in all messengers that preceded Bab and think they founded religions relevant to their times and contexts. A monotheistic religion, the Baha’i faith believes in the spiritual unity of humankind.
“The Baha’i religion is an organized religion,” Nizar explained. “It has an administrative structure, and we organize monthly meetings every 19 days, during which we chant Duaa and discuss some issues. We elect a committee every year too.”
Although there is no official census of Baha’is, Nizar estimates that more than a thousand exist in Tunisia. He says numbers have risen in recent years as Tunisians have become more interested in new religions.
Jamal said he didn’t grow up in a religious home and his father was an atheist. Although he had no faith in religion as a young man, he began to read about spirituality and discovered Bahai’ism.
“I was impressed by how Baha’i’ in Iran were persecuted and yet continued to resist without being violent,” he said. “They were massacred and still retained their beliefs.”
He continued, “we don’t reject Islam. We believe in all of God’s messengers. Yet, religions evolve and humanity progresses. This is what Baha’ism taught us. We have reached a stage of maturity. We need a new religion and new laws.’’
The Tunisian state does not recognize Baha’ism as a religion, and although practice of the faith is generally tolerated, members of the community reported some harassment during the former regime.
Jamal said he was called to the Ministry of Interior every few months, where authorities would question him about the Baha’i community.
“When I tried to renew my passport, they kept delaying the procedure and eventually proposed I become an informant,” he said. “Of course, I refused and with the help of some people I know, I got my passport back.”
Nizar added, “Some people say that this is not a religion and this is not our faith. They are free to believe that. We believe in one God and all prophets, after all.”
*A correction was added to this article: Bab was the herald of Baha’u'llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i faith.