Sunday, 10am. There is nothing in this alley of downtown Tunis that hints at the existence of a church. No cross, no crowds of worshipers. Two young black men enter a small hotel. They head straight into a room that has become their place of worship.

A din of songs and chatter slowly raises. We look around for the room where immigrants gather for Sunday service. The receptionist answers in a tone of would-be reassurance: “No, no. I dont know about any mass. We just rent them the room”. He gestures towards a young man who leads the way.

About a dozen people have assembled in the room. They are all young men.  A carefully-dressed young woman and  man are singing on stage. Elated, the young woman treads the stage in high heels. Her singing partner stands with his eyes closed, raising one hand. He appears to be in a trance. With his eyes half-closed, an amateur organist attempts a few monotone notes. A passer-by might easily mistake this event for a musical show. It is, however, a religious service attended by Congolese Evangelist Protestants.

Practicing in fear

There is nothing sumptuous about this room. Nothing that resembles the architecture and solemnity of a church. Here is a modest space furnished with chairs lined up for worshipers. Without any natural light, the room is dismal.

In their fervor, the singers raise their voices as they invoke God’s presence. Their melodic praise is at odds with the tone of the organ. The worshipers, hardly carried away by the music, do not seem to notice. Most of them have gathered in silence, and remain pinned to their chairs. Some stretch out their hands from time to time in a gesture of prayer. One young man quickly paces the room, clapping his hands and muttering. Another recites prayers, his face pressed against the wall.

The singers take their leave, and a man walks on stage. Well-dressed, he alternates between verses from the Bible and a half-improvised discourse on the importance of feeling God’s presence in everyday life to improve oneself. In his capacity as pastor, every now and then the man calls upon the worshipers to ensure that they are taking in his words.

At the end of the ceremony, the worshipers stand up to pray together. The young woman gets back on stage to ask for the charity of those who have come to the service. Two individuals leave some coins in a plastic basket set on the stage. The pastor speaks up to remind his audience of the importance of making a contribution to the community. He brandishes a few empty envelopes. “Whatever you can give” he urges. Nobody takes an envelope.

The young woman finishes by urging the audience not to miss Sunday service, and to bring along friends or family the next time. “People are worried. They no longer dare to come since what took place in February”, she tells Nawaat. “There used to be more of us“, she says regretfully.

A hostile climate

Last February, the Tunisian Nationalist Party launched a hate campaign against migrants. The Party considers migrants in Tunisia to represent a threat to the country’s identity. The party, which alleges that migrants have a plan to colonize Tunisia, has called for the closure of churches frequented by migrants. Their argument is that such places of worship have become havens for trickery and deceit.

President Saied adopted the Party’s rhetoric and went off on his own anti-migrant diatribe. He accused migrants of wanting to colonize Tunisia by changing its demographic composition, and of robbing the country of its Arab-Muslim identity.

Virulent assertions that were followed by acts of mob justice targeting migrants. The latter were forced to keep a low profile. The Congolese migrants who we find gathered for worship are students living in Tunisia. They rent this conference room in a hotel for their Sunday service.

These individuals rely upon themselves to ensure their own safety. “The owners of the space do not provide any guarantee of our security. This responsibility is our own », Christ Landzi, president of the Association of Congolese Students and Interns in Tunisia (AESCT), explains to Nawaat. Landzi adds, “We try to not make any noise in order to not disturb the neighborhood”.

Since the crisis galvanized by Kaid Saied, migrants are increasingly afraid for their safety. “At the time, several Evangelical churches closed or were relocated. Some migrants had to stop gathering for prayer in order to stay safe, since several churches were vandalized by the police”, says Pierre (pseudonym), who works for an association that organizes religious celebrations. Pierre spoke to Nawaat on the condition of anonymity.

Just as they must find ways to ensure their own safety, these Protestants pull together the means necessary to cover rent for prayer rooms. The cost of rent—depending on room capacity, location, the type of activity carried out, and equipment provided—ranges from 150 to 250 dinars for two hours, Pierre indicates. Christ Landzi specifies that this cost is covered by worshipers’ contributions. Several rooms are rented out at any given time since there are several different Evangelical sects in Tunisia, Landzi adds.

Protestantism and migration

For Protestants, “church” designates any place where worshipers physically gather to pray. A branch of Christianism, Protestantism comprises different movements including Evangelism. Several elements are particular to this movement, including Anabaptism, Baptism, and Pentecostalism.

Though not recent, the presence of Protestants in Tunisia has evolved over the past few decades. Before, Protestants were essentially Europeans who frequented the two historical Protestant churches: The Reformed Church of Tunis and the Saint Georges Anglican Church.

The Reformed Church of Tunis
The Reformed Church of Tunis

Katia Boissevain, an anthropologist specializing in religion in contemporary Maghreb societies and director of the Institute for Research Institute on Contemporary Maghreb (IRMC) explained to Nawaat that the arrival of migrants in Tunisia has given rise to a diversity of faiths. The divisions are religious, but also linguistic given the mix of francophones, anglophones and Tunisian Arabic speakers.

According to Boissevain’s study “Migrating and Awakening Churches: Diversification of Christian Worship in Tunisia“, Protestant churches with their limited space are no longer able to receive newcomers to the faith. As a result, they have begun to practice in party halls or conference rooms. Boissevain also notes that the divergence in ceremonies practiced by worshipers means that some prefer rented rooms for their gatherings as opposed to the two historical churches.

This dispersal of the Protestant community has not been addressed by the government. “People come up with solutions in the absence of any institutional response”, says Ali Belhaj, research professor and expert in international migration, in an interview with Nawaat. He further explains:

This phenomenon has been observed everywhere where religious currents have emerged within a country. Before the structuration of the practice of Islam in Europe, there were also anarchic places of Muslim worship.

Marginalization and its risks

In 1964, the Tunisian state signed a “Modus Vivendi” with the Catholic Church to organize worship after the departure of the French colonists. Protestant churches are not included in this agreement. Contacted by Nawaat, the Ministry of Religious Affairs did not answer our questions regarding state supervision of Protestants’ religious practices.

In the meantime, the State’s laissez-faire approach leaves room for abuse. In order to rent a space in Tunisia, certain conditions must be met. Pierre explains how building owners ask for documents concerning how the group’s activities are financed, as well as proof of their association’s legal status and of leaders’ and members’ residency. Generally speaking, such conditions are not in fact required. “They take advantage of this (illegal) opportunity to raise the rent”, he says ruefully.

In order to organize their religious practice in Tunisia, Protestants look to gather within religious associations. “We want to be officially recognized as a fellowship of churches, and to have a legal status. However, Tunisian authorities always throw a wrench in the gears. They see us as disparate little groups that pose a threat to the Muslim faith”, Pierre relates.

Proselytism is illegal in Tunisia. However, the state guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, as stipulated by the Constitution. Legal dispositions are not always supported by clear public policies that guarantee religious freedom. “And yet the state would benefit from engaging with official religious structures and with Protestant religious community leaders who are known and recognized” argues Ali Belhaj. He continues: “We must not forget that this inertia on the part of the authorities could also compromise worshipers’ safety. An insalubrious room that is not up to standard with safety norms represents a danger for them”. This concern is shared by Christ Landzi. To remedy this, he hopes that the different Evangelical churches will be able to come together to address the Tunisian State.

The opacity that currently prevails in the arena of religious affairs prevents these movements from freely and safely practicing their religion. It is this same opacity that, in the same breath, equips racist groups with the alibi they need to carry on their witch-hunts targeting migrants.