Pilgrims gather in Tunisia to celebrate Jewish festival

Djerba (Tunisia) (AFP) –


Worshippers lit candles and prayed on Wednesday at Africa's oldest synagogue in Tunisia to celebrate an annual festival, marking a resurgence for the country's Jewish community after years of security woes.

Hundreds of pilgrims had on Wednesday morning already reached the Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba in southern Tunisia, an AFP photographer said, with thousands more expected to follow.

Alongside a heavy police and military presence, Tunisian worshippers were joined by those from Israel and European countries to celebrate the annual Lag BaOmer festival.

"We've come to Djerba at least 20 times, for holidays and for the Ghriba festivities week as well," said French pilgrim Ketty Acco.

"We're always very happy that tourism is growing again because before, there used to be 7,000 or 8,000 people and now we're happy because tourists are coming back," she added.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed was also expected to visit the synagogue, where dried fruit and boukha -- alcohol made from local fruits -- were blessed at the start of the two-day celebration.

The number of Jews in Tunisia has fallen significantly from around 100,000 before the country gained independence from France in 1956, to a current estimate of around 1,500.

This year organisers expected between 5,000 and 6,000 pilgrims to visit the synagogue, around twice as many as 2017.

Between 150 and 200 Israelis are due to take part in the festivities, according to co-organiser Victor Trabelsi, whose father Perez is head of the Ghriba synagogue.

The community is still recovering from a suicide bombing at the synagogue in 2002 that killed 21 people. Before the attack some 8,000 pilgrims used to travel to Djerba for the annual celebration.

Although the security situation in Tunisia has improved over the past two years, authorities continue to be wary and urge vigilance.

The state of emergency imposed after a series of attacks on tourists and security forces in 2015 remains in place, having been extended in March for a another seven months.

The presidency has said it wants to guarantee security during municipal elections on Sunday, the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and the tourist season.