The head of Tunisia’s Catholic Church has urged Western Catholics not to abandon his country despite fears of further Islamist violence after a bloody terrorist attack on tourists in the famed Bardo National Museum in its capital.
“It’s believed other radical groups are biding their time here, having returned to Tunisia after fighting in Syria and Iraq,” said Archbishop Ilario Antoniazzi of Tunis.
“But this attack was aimed at the tourism industry, rather than against Christians,” the archbishop told the American Catholic News Service. “We count on Western church leaders to encourage people not to be afraid, and to continue coming here as visitors and pilgrims.”
The March 18 attack by a group of armed invaders left 22 dead, most of whom were Western tourists.
Archbishop Antoniazzi said local Catholics had been left “shocked and dismayed” by the attack, which was claimed by the Islamic State movement. He added that efforts had been made to ensure church Masses and prayer services were not disrupted.
“We enjoy good ties with the government here, as well as with Muslim leaders who reject all terrorist links,” the archbishop said.
Tunisia’s 30,000-strong Catholic Church has a single archdiocese, based in Tunis. Its cathedral was completed in 1897, when the country was a French protectorate.
The church has 12 places of worship and 13 religious orders and operates nine schools and several libraries and clinics.
The museum attack was the deadliest since a January 2011 uprising overthrew Tunisia’s 24-year ruler, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, a move widely seen as heralding the “Arab Spring”.
Archbishop Antoniazzi said many Tunisians feared the return of militants from Islamic State campaigns elsewhere in the Middle East, but were also determined to protect the tourism industry, which sustains 473,000 jobs and makes up 15.2 per cent of the Tunisian economy, according to government data.
“Groups like this are ready to use violence to kill not just tourism, but also democracy, culture and interfaith relations,” he said.
“While there are clearly problems here, and a need for surveillance against militant sleeper cells encouraged by the spiritual and moral emptiness left here by the years of dictatorship, I’m cautiously optimistic they won’t succeed,” he said.
Fr Jawad Alamat, director of the Pontifical Mission Societies of Tunisia, told the Vatican’s Fides news agency that he feared Tunisians would suffer social and economic consequences of the museum attack. He said unemployment and rising prices had made it easy “for those who have much money to corrupt the minds of desperate young people.”
“Tunisians would like to give a different image of their land, and in fact many efforts have been made to convince the world that Tunisia wants democracy and freedom,” Fr Alamat said.
“But this attack threatens to ruin all the work done. And this is what hurts Tunisian people.”