Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Jews in annual pilgrimage to Africa's oldest synagogue

from AFP via Yahoo News:

Jews from around the world arrived on the Tunisian island of Djerba on Wednesday for an annual pilgrimage to Africa's oldest synagogue, with organisers expecting a significant jump in participants.

"Visitors have been arriving by the hundreds since Sunday to take advantage of a longer stay on the island, and there will be about 6,000 for the big day," organiser Perez Trabelsi said of Thursday's events at the Ghriba shrine.

They arrived amid heavy security, however, with authorities seeking to prevent an attack similar to the one carried out by a suicide bomber at the site in 2002 that killed 21 people.

Police set up barricades, while an electronic gate filtered visitors entering the area around the sacred site, believed to be 2,500 years old.

The total number of pilgrims in Djerba, which is popular with tourists, is expected to be 40 percent higher than last year, including a record 1,500 from Israel, said Trabelsi. The number of visitors dropped sharply after the 2002 attack.

Most, or some 4,000, will come from France, while others are due from Italy, Britain, Germany and Canada.

Tourism minister Khalil Laajimi was expected in Djerba to welcome the pilgrims and pay homage to Tunisia's Jewish community.

The Jewish community in Tunisia is still one of the largest in the Arab world but its numbers have dropped from 100,000 on independence from France in 1956 to round 1,500 today. Most emigrated to France or Israel.

Nearly half of those who remain live in Djerba.

The April 2002 attack just before the pilgrimage saw a suicide bomber ram the wall of the synagogue with a lorry laden with natural gas, which blew up killing 14 German tourists, five Tunisians and two French visitors.

The Al-Qaeda network claimed responsibility for the attack, which brought the flow of foreign pilgrims down from around 1,500 in 2001 to about 200 in 2002.

(Read more here and here and here.)

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