Tunisian Lag Ba'Omer Festival Goes Ahead Under Strict Security

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Young Tunisian Jews read the Torah inside the Ghriba synagogue on Djerba island on Wednesday.Credit: AFP

Several hundred Jews are participating in the annual Lag Ba'Omer pilgrimage to Africa's oldest synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, AFP reported on Thursday.

The pilgrimage went ahead despite a widely-publicized Israeli warning last week that travel to Tunisia was potentially dangerous. Tunisia rejected the travel warning, saying that there had not been any terror alert.

A terrorist attack on a museum in Tunis in March left 21 foreign tourists and a Tunisian policeman dead.

Security was tight on the island in anticipation of the festival celebration. Barriers were erected on access routes to Djerba and police checkpoints set up around Hara Kbira, the Jewish district of the island.

"There is a lot of security, there are soldiers and police everywhere and that is very reassuring to us," said Lorine Bendayan, who made this year's trip from France.

"Terrorism exists everywhere, you have to be stoic," said Marc, another pilgrim from France.

"I could not miss this," Janet, a 54-year-old Israeli of Tunisian origin, told AFP. "It was important for me to make this pilgrimage, whatever the risks."

The visitors chanted and lit candles in the Ghriba synagogue, which is believed to have been founded in 586 BCE by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

They also visited the tombs of famous rabbis on Djerba island, where one of the last Jewish communities in the Arab world still lives.

On Wednesday they could be seen praying and carrying out rituals like writing wishes on eggs and drinking a glass of fig brandy before being blessed by a rabbi.

Participation in the pilgrimage has plummeted since 2002, when 21 people were killed in a terrorist attack on visitors to the synagogue. Some 8,000 people participated in the year before the attack.

There were an estimated 100,000 Jews in Tunisia when the country gained independence from France in 1956, but the number has since dwindled to around 1,500.

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