A Jewish pilgrimage to the oldest synagogue in Africa on Tunisia’s Djerba island began Wednesday under tight security after it was cancelled last year following the revolution.
About 500 Jews from Europe and 1,000 Jewish Tunisians started gathering on the Mediterranean island before heading to the 2,500-year-old Ghriba synagogue, said Perez Trabelsi, head of the Tunisian Jewish community.
“Everything is going properly. I am satisfied,” Trabelsi said of the heavy police and military deployment on the island.
There were an estimated 100,000 Jews living in Tunisia when the north African country gained independence in 1956, but the vast majority quickly relocated to France, the former colonial power.
But, with roughly 1,500 members, Tunisia still has one of the largest Jewish communities in the Arab world.
The pilgrimage previously attracted tens of thousands of visitors, but turnout declined dramatically following an April 2002 attack at Ghriba claimed by Al-Qaeda that killed 21 people.
The event was cancelled last year with the country on edge following a January uprising that toppled long-serving dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party that won October elections has pledged to protect the interests of the Jewish minority.
But the country has seen a rise in demonstrations by adherents of extreme-conservative Salafist strand of Islam who have called for the creation of a more rigid Islamic state in post-Ben Ali Tunisia.
“I was a bit reluctant, then I decided to come and I am delighted to be here today,” said Cathy Koher, a French Jew of Polish origin who travelled to the island about roughly 500 kilometers (300 miles) from Tunis.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki last month commemorated the 10-year anniversary of Al-Qaeda attack, which Jewish groups said was the first time a president had officially noted the occasion.
The synagogue dates back 2,500 years and, legend has it, was built by fleeing Jews following the destruction of Solomon’s Temple.