May 21, 2011 / 6:20 PM / in 6 years

Jewish pilgrimage in Tunisia goes ahead, but muted

DJERBA, Tunisia (Reuters) - A small group of Jewish pilgrims gathered on an Tunisian island to visit one of Africa’s oldest synagogues but worries over continued unrest kept many away from the annual event.

About 5,000 pilgrims from Tunisia and abroad usually travel each May to the El Ghriba synagogue on Djerba island in the south to mark a holiday which follows Passover.

But this year less than 100 took part and organizers cancelled traditional celebrations because of security concerns and lack of participants.

Only a few pilgrims came this year as the country struggles to restore order following the overthrow of Tunisia’s authoritarian ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January.

“This year was an exception, the atmosphere is different because of security in the country. It is a real shame,” Perez Trabesli, the head of the Jewish community in Djerba said late on Friday, the day that usually draws the most pilgrims.

“It is understandable that they do not come because they see attacks and unrest every day on the television,” he said.

The pilgrimage has been taking place for 20 years and in the past has attracted visitors from Israel, France and the United States. This year only a handful of foreigners came.

Mainly Muslim Tunisia has one of the largest Jewish communities in North Africa - about 2,000 people - and half of them live in Djerba, close to the Libyan border.

The small group carried out their pilgrimage under heavy police guard and the synagogue was quiet in comparison to previous years.

“I am not scared,” said Natalie, who was visiting from France. “We understand what is going on, it is the normal result of a revolution which shook the world,” she said.

The synagogue was already heavily guarded before the revolution because it was the site of an al Qaeda attack in 2002 which killed 21 people including foreigners.

Some in the community fear the upheaval after the revolution could put Tunisia’s Jewish population at greater risk. A synagogue was set on fire by arsonists in the Tunisian city of Ghabes in February.

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