IN PHOTOS: Jewish Pilgrims Arrived at Tunisia's Ghriba Synagogue

Pilgrims arrived at Tunisia's Ghriba synagogue expressing hope that this year would mark a turning point for the ritual despite a rise in Islamist unrest since the 2011 revolution.

Chief executive of Liberal Judaism in the United Kingdon Rabbi Danny Rich is seen at the Ghriba synagogue in the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016.
Chief executive of Liberal Judaism in the United Kingdon Rabbi Danny Rich is seen at the Ghriba synagogue in the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016. Credit: Fethi Belaid, AFP
Bouazza Ben Bouazza
Bouazza Ben Bouazza

AP — Under unprecedented security, the Tunisian island of Djerba hosted an annual Jewish pilgrimage amid raised fears of religious violence after deadly Islamic extremist attacks last year scared away visitors.

Soldiers guarded the area in southern Tunisia and special forces carried out checks of vehicles and hotels.

The Israeli government reportedly issued a warning earlier this month advising Israelis not to travel to Tunisia for the event.

Under a sweltering heat, crowds gathered for ceremonies Wednesday and Thursday at the 2,500-year-old Ghriba synagogue, which was targeted in a 2002 attack. The pilgrimage used to draw huge crowds but security concerns have deterred many people from coming. Still, travel agency Rene Trabelsi estimated 2,000 visitors came this year, including about 600 from abroad and 50 from Israel.

Rabbi Raphael Cohen of Safed in northern Israel was among them. In a black suit and long white beard, he praised Ghriba as a "symbol of tolerance and peaceful cohabitation" between Muslims and Jews, and welcomed what he called "a reassuring security presence."

Knox Thames, special adviser at the U.S. State Department for religious minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, also joined the ceremonies, saying Tunisia should serve as a model for allowing religious minorities to practice freely.

Legend holds that the Ghriba synagogue was built around 500 BC by Jews who had fled Jerusalem after the Roman destruction of Solomon's Temple.

Senior political and religious figures from Tunisia and abroad, including Tunisia's Tourism Minister Selma Elloumi, took part in the opening ceremony Wednesday.

"Tunisia will remain a land of openness, conviviality and joy, despite the challenges of violence and hate," she said.

The pilgrimage event wrapped up Thursday with the procession of a bronze Torah, candle lighting and a ritual involving placing an egg in a cavity at the synagogue, with prayers written on the eggshells for healing ailments or fertility.

Pilgrim Alice Tal came from Paris to offer thanks. "Last year, my daughter left an egg with a marriage wish. Her wish was granted, she is getting married next week."

A French Jewish woman reacts as she prays at the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016.
A French Jewish woman reacts as she prays at the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016.Credit: Fethi Belaid, AFP
A Tunisian Jew walks in front of the Ghriba Synagogue, thought to be Africa's oldest synagogue, one day before the Jewish annual pilgrimage in Djerba on May 24, 2016.
A Tunisian Jew walks in front of the Ghriba Synagogue, thought to be Africa's oldest synagogue, one day before the Jewish annual pilgrimage in Djerba on May 24, 2016. Credit: Fethi Belaid, AFP
Tunisian Rabbi Attoughi reads the Torah, Judaism’s most important text, at the Ghriba synagogue in the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016.
Tunisian Rabbi Attoughi reads the Torah, Judaism’s most important text, at the Ghriba synagogue in the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016. Credit: Fethi Belaid, AFP
Tunisian Jewish women walk in the village of Hara Kebira on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba one day before the start of a two-day annual pilgrimage, on May 24, 2016.
Tunisian Jewish women walk in the village of Hara Kebira on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba one day before the start of a two-day annual pilgrimage, on May 24, 2016.Credit: Fethi Belaid, AFP
Chief executive of Liberal Judaism in the United Kingdon Rabbi Danny Rich prays at the Ghriba synagogue in the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016.
Chief executive of Liberal Judaism in the United Kingdon Rabbi Danny Rich prays at the Ghriba synagogue in the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016. Credit: Fethi Belaid, AFP
A Tunisian Jewish woman lights a candle at the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016.
A Tunisian Jewish woman lights a candle at the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016.Credit: Fethi Belaid, AFP
An Israeli rabbi reads the Torah, Judaism’s most important text, at the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016.
An Israeli rabbi reads the Torah, Judaism’s most important text, at the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016.Credit: Fethi Belaid, AFP
French Tunisian Jewish women pray at the Ghriba synagogue in the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016.
French Tunisian Jewish women pray at the Ghriba synagogue in the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 25, 2016. Credit: Fethi Belaid, AFP
Tunisian Jewish Perez Trabelsi, President of the Jewish community of Djerba reads the Torah, Judaism’s most important text, at the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba one day before the start of a two-day annual pilgrimage, on May 24, 2016.
Tunisian Jewish Perez Trabelsi, President of the Jewish community of Djerba reads the Torah at the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba, May 24, 2016.Credit: Fethi Belaid, AFP
Tunisian Jewish youths play in the streets of Hara Kebira, the main jewish quarter of the Tunisian resort island of Djerba, after attending a ceremony at the Ghriba synagogue on the during the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 26, 2016.
Tunisian Jewish youths play in the streets of Hara Kebira, the main jewish quarter of the Tunisian resort island of Djerba, after attending a ceremony at the Ghriba synagogue on May 26, 2016.Credit: Fethi Belaid, AFP

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