DJERBA, Tunisia (AFP) – Pilgrims began arriving on Friday at Tunisia’s Ghriba synagogue, the oldest in Africa, expressing hope that this year would mark a turning point for the ritual despite a rise in Islamist unrest since the 2011 revolution.
The annual pilgrimage, which runs from Friday to Sunday and involves two processions, is taking place amid tight security, with reinforcements deployed around Djerba, the Mediterranean resort island that houses the synagogue.
More than a dozen army trucks were stationed at Ghriba itself, where an Al-Qaeda attack in 2002 killed 21 people, with police checkpoints set up around the nearby Jewish neighbourhoods and on the road linking the airport to the tourist zone.
Organisers hope to welcome between 1,000 and 1,500 pilgrims over the weekend, including some 500 foreigners, among them several dozens Israelis for the first time since the revolution, as well as members of Tunisia’s diminished Jewish community.
Before Friday’s procession, the faithful entered the 2,500-year-old place of worship barefoot and with their heads covered, to light a candle, take a sip of Boukha, or local fig wine, and receive a rabbi’s blessing.
“Thank God this year is as it should be, not like in the last two years. I came then, but out of solidarity. There were no real festivities,” said Meyer Sabbagh, 63, a real estate developer who left Djerba for Paris after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War also known as the Yom Kippur war.
“There are police this year, it’s great. There are a good dozen at the entrance to the Hara (a Jewish neighbourhood). My cousin has even come from Israel,” said the businessman.
The anticipated number of pilgrims is still far below the 8,000 that came before the 2002 attack, and even the 3,000 that had returned prior to the revolution that toppled former strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.
The event was cancelled that year with the country on edge after the mass uprisings, but it resumed discreetly in 2012 and no incidents were reported.
Friza Haddad, known as Micha, a Tunisian singer and familiar voice at the annual Ghriba ceremonies, said he wanted to believe there was a future for the pilgrimage, on an island where Jews and Muslims have coexisted harmoniously.
“Here there is no problem, we live as a community. There are Jews here, and Muslims there. But it’s only on Djerba that things are like that. In the last two years there have been problems elsewhere” in Tunisia, said the old man.
Islamist militants have staged numerous attacks since Ben Ali fled, most notably on the US embassy in Tunis last September which left four assailants dead.
Michel Zucchero, a Christian doing the pilgrimage with Jewish and Muslim friends, said he was motivated to come by a desire to see Tunisia distance itself from the political, religious and social conflicts that have plagued the country.
“We are from the Jewish, Christian and Muslims faiths and we have come for the same reason, to perform a pilgrimage and make vows in the difficult current climate, because it is essential that all free religions respects each other.”
According to some experts, there is evidence that Ghriba is also a sacred shrine for Muslims from the region.
For all the hope and the extra security, however, some groups have raised concerns in recent months over an apparent rise in anti-Semitic language in Tunisia, accusing the authorities of not taking the problem seriously.
A minorities support group in March accused the judiciary of failing to prosecute individuals inciting hatred, including Ahmed S’hili, an imam who called openly for a “divine genocide” of the Jews in a sermon late last year.
The Ghriba ritual, which begins 33 days after the start of the Jewish Passover festival, is a central event in the calendar of Tunisia’s Jewish community, which has shrunk to around 1,500 members, from 100,000 before 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.