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CRISIS IN TUNISIA: Arab world, Mideast Christians ponder populist revolution

TUNIS, Tunisia (BP)—When 26-year-old college grad Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire Jan. 4 to protest his narrow slate of future options, he sparked a revolutionary blaze that toppled Tunisia’s government.

It marked a first for the Arab world — a longtime leader brought down by a populist movement. The crescendo of tens of thousands of educated middle-class Tunisians marching on the capital city of Tunis eventually pushed the nation’s authoritarian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, to flee the country Jan 14.

Now international observers are questioning if the fire of revolution in the North African nation will spread to other Arab countries. Christians, meanwhile, are considering how the situation could affect believers in the region.

Much depends on how and when the dust settles on the political crisis still raging in Tunisia, analysts say.

“The outlook for Christians in Tunisia is a matter for prayer,” said Malcolm B. Yarnell III, associate professor of systematic theology and director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Although Islam is Tunisia’s state religion, the nation has a history of religious tolerance, Yarnell said.

“There is cause both for hope and concern, especially with regard to religious liberty and the right to evangelize,” he said. “Tunisia is blessed with a relatively well-educated population and has some exposure to the religiously tolerant society of secular Europe, primarily because it is a popular tourist destination for Europeans. The Tunisian constitution guarantees religious liberty and conversion is legal.”

But proselytizing is prohibited, and the president must be Muslim, Yarnell said. “Moreover, there is an Islamist party in the opposition,” he added. But “its appeal to the general populace may be limited.”

Yarnell urged Christians to pray for their brothers and sisters in Tunisia, who make up a tiny percentage of the population. “It is my hope that Tunisia will retain its established religious tolerance and indeed improve upon it,” he said.

As the political fray continues there, a few copycats in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania have attempted to pull the trigger on their own revolutions, but with no apparent success.

A wave of revolutions similar to Tunisia is “unlikely,” according to Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor.

“While Tunisia was one of the most effective police states in a region of authoritarian and undemocratic rulers, it also boasts many characteristics that do not apply elsewhere,” Peterson wrote. “Tunisia has a strong, educated, and modern middle class — those young men and women who were on the streets and the front lines in Tunis — which nations like Algeria, Egypt and Yemen don’t have.”

Some analysts predict the likelihood of further revolutions in the Arab world will decrease even more if the situation in Tunisia continues much longer without resolution — or ends undesirably for the opposition.

Even so, political reforms could spread widely as a result of Tunisia’s revolt, Peterson predicted. Fawaz Gerges, the director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, agrees, according to the Monitor.

“[W]e might witness now a qualitatively different type of Arab politics [because] the social uprising in Tunisia has sent shockwaves through the veins of Arab rulers…. This is a very unique moment in modern Arab history,” Gerges said. “What has distinguished contemporary Arab politics in the last 50 years is political apathy and fear. [Tunisia] has shattered the myth, the claim that Arabs will not dare to rise up against tormentors, against their dictators.”

As the revolt continues to play out in Tunisia, Southern Baptist workers serving in the area are asking Christians to pray for the nation, its leaders and its people.

They ask prayer:

— for continued protection of believers in Tunisia.

— that schools, supermarkets and public transportation will be able to function normally again.

— for opportunities to share about the security people can have in Jesus Christ.

— for safety and protection for the approximately 10 million people protecting their houses and property from looting and unrest.

— for stability and quick transition of government.

— for unrest and violence to come to a stop.

— that wisdom and the good of the people will be the order of the day for those in power.
Ava Thomas is an International Misson Board writer/editor based in Europe.

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