Jewish pilgrimage to Tunisia's Ghriba synagogue ends peacefully

Djerba (Tunisia) (AFP) –


Thousands of people participated in an annual Jewish pilgrimage to Tunisia's famed Ghriba synagogue, which ended Thursday night without incident under heavy security.

For two days, pilgrims prayed and sang in Hebrew as they lit candles and placed votive eggs in a cave below Ghriba, Africa's oldest synagogue, on the island of Djerba in southern Tunisia.

About 3,000 people took part in the first day of the festivities, a police official told AFP.

Cheering and dancing, worshippers completed the pilgrimage by leaving the "Menara", an object of worship mounted on a cart for the ritual procession, at Ghriba's closely monitored outer gate.

The joyful march usually makes a tour of other synagogues and Jewish neighbourhoods on the island before returning to Ghriba, but in recent years, celebrations have been confined to Ghriba for security reasons.

According to Rene Trabelsi, co-organiser of the annual pilgrimage, nearly 400 Israelis took part in this year's festivities.

Organised every year on the 33rd day of Passover, the Ghriba pilgrimage has long been a central tradition for Jewish Tunisians.

The number of Jews in Tunisia has fallen significantly, from around 100,000 before independence from France in 1956 to an estimated 1,500 today.

The community is still recovering from a 2002 Al-Qaeda suicide bombing on the synagogue that killed 21 people, mostly Germans.

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 remain wary.

A 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.

Authorities are particularly concerned over threats to tourist hotspots and voting installations for Sunday's municipal elections.