The annual Jewish pilgrimage to Africa’s oldest synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba began on Friday under tight security but in a festive mood.
Some 3,000 pilgrims are expected to be part of this year’s pilgrimage, 1,000 more than last year’s when Tunisia was still reeling from a series of jihadist attacks.
The annual event used to attract as many as 8,000 pilgrims but the numbers have fallen sharply since a suicide bomb attack in Ghriba just before the 2002 pilgrimage killed 21 people.
The pilgrims are expected from countries such as Belgium, Spain, the United States and Israel whose government has warned citizens for the third consecutive year against taking part in the event.
Aziz Baroum from the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon however made the pilgrimage with three of his closest friends in spite of the Israeli government’s warning.
“Each year they say the same thing but personally I feel at home here, the welcome is excellent and the people are warm,” said Aziz.
René Trabelsi, a co-organiser of the pilgrimage said: “I think all these pilgrims who have agreed to come in spite of restrictions imposed on traveling to Tunisia by some countries, are very brave and they have shown their love to Tunisia and Tunisia appreciates them.”
For Franco-Tunisian Hassan Chalghoumi, the pilgrimage sends a “message of hope and peace”.
“There are moments in Europe when we doubt, and ask, can we live together or not? For example, there are 1500 Jews living in Djerba. There are many communities that live together and that is a universal message, it’s a message of peace,” he said.
Believed to have been founded in 586 BC by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the Ghriba synagogue has long been a destination for pilgrims, especially Jews of Tunisian descent.