TUNIS (Reuters) - Radical Islamists have seized control of 150 to 200 mosques and prayer halls around Tunisia this year, a senior religious official said Wednesday.
Official control over Tunisia’s 5,000 mosques and small prayer halls has relaxed since the January revolution that toppled autocratic president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, allowing radicals to occupy some of them, Jamel Oueslati told Reuters.
There were also cases where imams and congregations thwarted takeover bids, said Oueslati, who is chief of staff to Religious Affairs Minister Aroussi Mizouri in the caretaker government. He had no figures for such cases.
“After January 14, some extremist tendencies invaded certain mosques,” he said, referring to the day Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. “The ministry has no power to pressure them. We have to wait until things calm down and we’ll see what we can do.
“This is an exceptional situation. This tendency is a reaction to the years of oppression and lack of free expression. They now have the opportunity to express their views, often aggressively.”
The moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which advocates democracy and pledges not to impose religious bans on the secularist minority here, won 40 percent of the vote in the October 23 election for a constituent assembly.
It is expected to form a coalition with two large secularist parties to run the country and write a new constitution.
No radical Islamist parties were allowed to contest the election, so the extent of their political support is not known. But few are seen on the streets in Tunis, where many women wear western clothes and do not veil their hair.
Radical Islamists, or salafists, have given Tunisia’s secularist elites the jitters. Last month, they clashed with police in Tunis and protested against a film they said insulted Islam.
Oueslati said the ministry, which oversees the management of mosques and prayer halls and validates the qualifications of imams, had no problems with radicals under the old dictatorship.
Since the revolution did away with authoritarian methods, he said, it could not ask the police to eject the salafists.
“We’re trying to discuss with them, but they won’t agree to talk,” he said. The ministry will be able to take legal measures only once the new government is formed and establishes its authority.
Oueslati said there was no indication the salafists were supported from abroad, but said Tunisia was concerned about satellite television broadcasts that propagated a stricter version of Islam than normally practised here.
The authorities were considering launching a Tunisian Islamic television channel, with question and answer sessions like those popular on foreign stations, he said.
“Most people want to ask questions about religion. When Tunisians don’t find someone to ask, some go and watch these satellite channels and can get confused,” he said.
If Tunisia creates its own religious channel, he said, “people could address our own experts with their questions instead of turning to the so-called ‘sages’ of the Gulf or elsewhere.”
The state has taken over a religious radio station set up in Tunis several years ago by a relative of Ben Ali, he said.
Oueslati said the majority of Tunisians rejected religious radicalism. “We’re moderates, we want to be open to the world,” he said. “We’re not fundamentalists, as some seem to think.”
Reporting by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Robert Woodward