May 2, 2018 / 4:53 PM / 20 days ago

In Tunisia, Jews gather at Africa's oldest synagogue under tight security

DJERBA, Tunisia (Reuters) - Under tight security at Africa’s oldest synagogue, Jewish pilgrims on Wednesday staged their biggest religious ceremony in Tunisia since a 2011 revolution undermined security in the North African country.

A Jewish woman lights candles inside the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Mainly Muslim Tunisia is home to one of North Africa’s largest Jewish communities. Though they now number less than 2,000 people, Jews have lived in Tunisia since Roman times.

In 2011, after the uprising that toppled former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali the annual celebration was cancelled, and in following years only a few hundred attended, fearing attacks by hardline Islamists.

This year, revellers chanted and danced in a two-day pilgrimage to the El Ghriba synagogue at the popular tourist island resort of Djerba 500 km (310 miles) south of Tunis.

Jewish worshippers light candles inside the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

“The security situation is excellent here and this has encouraged us to come back ... Today we feel safer in Tunisia than in Paris,” Isabel Guez, a Jewish visitor from Paris, told Reuters.

“This celebration is a great opportunity for approchement between Muslims, Jews and other religions and an opportunity to call for peace and love across the world,” she added.

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Some 5,000 pilgrims attended, organisers said, a significant increase on 2,000 last year. Tunisia has not seen a major militant attack since scores of foreigners were killed in two strikes claimed by Islamic State in 2015.

Hundreds of pilgrims prayed, lit candles and wrote wishes on eggs. Others celebrated by sipping glasses of boukha, a liqueur made from figs.

In 2002 militants linked to al Qaeda attacked the synagogue with a truck bomb killing 21 Western tourists.

Authorities took no chances this time with hundreds of police, soldiers and members of anti-terror units patrolling streets. Checkpoints were set up around the synagogue.

“With the good security situation now, the number of visitors exceeds 5,000 from Israel, Russia and Europe,” said Perez Trabelsi, the head of the Jewish community in Djerba.

The El Ghriba synagogue, home to most of Tunisia’s Jews, is built on the site of a Jewish temple that is believed to date back almost 1,900 years.

Editing by Ulf Laessing and William Maclean

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