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Jewish pilgrimage in Tunisia resumes year after COVID cancellation

A Tunisian Jewish pilgrim lights a candle on the first day of the annual pilgrimage to the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa, on April 26, 2021, in the Mediterranean Tunisian resort island of Djerba. (Fathi Nasri/AFP)
A Tunisian Jewish pilgrim lights a candle on the first day of the annual pilgrimage to the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa, on April 26, 2021, in the Mediterranean Tunisian resort island of Djerba. (Fathi Nasri/AFP)

DJERBA, Tunisia — The annual Jewish pilgrimage to the ancient Ghriba synagogue on Tunisia’s Djerba island starts today without the usual thousands of pilgrims, due to restrictions to stem the coronavirus pandemic.

The pilgrimage to Ghriba — the oldest synagogue in Africa — takes place from April 25 to May 2 for the island’s Jewish community and the few faithful able to make the trip from abroad.

Last year, it was cancelled due to the pandemic, but this year, it is taking place — albeit with pilgrims praying individually and wearing face masks.

Former tourism minister Rene Trabelsi, himself Jewish, is in Djerba with about 20 French tourists.

He says that despite restrictions pilgrims could still offer their prayers.

“This year, we pray for the whole world,” Trabelsi says.

Beginning 33 days after the start of the Jewish festival of Passover, the pilgrimage usually attracts huge numbers of Jewish worshipers from across the world.

“We are very happy to be able to say our prayers,” says Elizabeth, an elderly lady from Paris, who gives only her first name.

“There are no festivities this year, but it does not matter, we come for prayer. Last year, it was impossible.”

Tunisia, with a population of some 12 million people, has recorded over 300,000 cases of COVID-19, including 10,304 deaths.

Tunisian Jews now numbers around 1,500, compared with an estimated 100,000 living in the North African country when it gained independence in 1956.

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