Middle East

Tight security for pilgrims at ancient Tunisia synagogue

Tunisian Rabbi Mamou reads the Torah, Judaism’s most important text, at the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba at the start of a three-day annual pilgrimage, on May 16, 2014. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID

DJERBA, Tunisia: Jewish pilgrims began arriving on Friday at Ghriba, Africa's oldest synagogue, on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba for an annual gathering taking place amid heavy security.

Police and soldiers deployed along the main road to Ghriba, with checkpoints set up to search vehicles.

The organisers hope to receive 2,000 people during the three-day event which ends on Sunday, a representative of the small Jewish community in Ghriba, Perez Trabelsi, told AFP.

Beginning 33 days after the start of the Jewish Passover festival, the Ghriba pilgrimage used to attract up to 8,000 pilgrims and tourists.

But attendance slumped after a suicide attack claimed by Al-Qaeda killed 21 people in April 2002, most of them German tourists.

Following the attack, and before the 2011 revolution that toppled long-time strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the annual event attracted around 3,000 visitors on average.

It takes place this year amid controversy surrounding the authorisation of Tunisian entry permits to Israeli visitors, which Trabelsi said had had a negative impact.

"People are afraid, and have cancelled their visit, including some people coming from France who have relatives in Israel. They cancelled their plans because they couldn't come together," he said.

A group of Tunisian politicians has argued that the deputy interior minister for security, Ridha Sfar, was effectively promoting "normalisation" with the Jewish state by allowing Israelis to visit Tunisia.

Like most other countries in the Arab world, the North African nation does not recognise Israel, primarily out of solidarity with Palestinian demands for a state of their own.

Sfar and Tourism Minister Amel Karboul were the target of unsuccessful censure motions last Friday, which were finally withdrawn shortly before lawmakers in the Islamist-dominated parliament were to vote on them.

The annual pilgrimage to Ghriba is central to the traditions of Tunisia's historic Jewish community, which numbers around 1,500 now, compared with an estimated 100,000 when the country gained independence in 1956.

According to legend, the synagogue was founded in 586 BC by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.





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