Last Updated: Mon May 16, 2011 23:57 pm (KSA) 20:57 pm (GMT)

Tunisia’s Jewish pilgrimage scaled down amid unrest

A woman lights a candle in the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. (File Photo)
A woman lights a candle in the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. (File Photo)

Festivities linked to a pilgrimage that draws thousands every year to a Tunisia synagogue, reputedly the oldest in Africa, have been scaled down because of security fears, organizers said Monday.

A ritual in which visitors light candles in the Ghriba synagogue and are blessed by rabbis will go ahead as usual on Friday and Sunday, the head of Tunisia’s Jewish community, Perez Trabelsi, told AFP by telephone from the tourist island of Djerba.

“At the same time, the fete and auction for the profit of the Jewish community and the procession in the roads around the synagogue have been cancelled because of a lack of foreign visitors,” he said, citing “the situation in the country.”

This was the first time in at least 20 years that such measures have been taken at the ancient Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba, he said.

Tunisia has struggled to stabilize since January when weeks of gathering protests forced authoritarian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee, ending 23 years in power.

Protests have continued against the country’s transitional authority, while the uprising in Libya led thousands of refugees to cross into Tunisia and has seen clashes flare on the border.

“People are afraid of the security situation in the country,” Mr. Trabelsi said.

Another Jewish leader, Rene Trabelsi, cited the bombing that killed 17 people in Morocco late last month, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden for which Al Qaeda has vowed revenge.

The “attack in Marrakesh, the death of Bin Laden, the situation on the border (with Libya) which is worsening, and the recent violence in Tunis with the imposition of a curfew” had discouraged visitors, he said.

“The Tunisian Jewish community does not really have the heart right now to hold festivities while the Tunisian people are living in worry and insecurity,” he said.

A truck bombing claimed by Al Qaeda struck Ghriba just before the 2002 pilgrimage and killed 21 people, including 14 German tourists.

One of the legends about the origins of the synagogue is that it was founded around 586 BC by Jews who fled after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

The Jewish community in Muslim Tunisia has seen its numbers dwindle from 100,000 in 1956, when the country won independence from France, to around 1,000 currently.

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