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Only a faithful few make it as Djerba pilgrimage resumes after COVID break

‘This year, we pray for the whole world,’ says one participant, as virus restrictions keep away thousands who normally flock to Tunisia’s Ghriba synagogue to mark Lag B’Omer

  • 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. (Photo by 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. (Photo by FATHI NASRI / AFP)
  • A Tunisian Jewish caretaker sits on the entrance of the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa on the first day of the annual pilgrimage in the Mediterranean Tunisian resort island of Djerba on April 26, 2021.(Photo by FATHI NASRI / AFP)
    A Tunisian Jewish caretaker sits on the entrance of the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa on the first day of the annual pilgrimage in the Mediterranean Tunisian resort island of Djerba on April 26, 2021.(Photo by FATHI NASRI / AFP)
  • A 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 (Photo by FATHI NASRI / AFP)
    A 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 (Photo by FATHI NASRI / AFP)
  • Jewish pilgrims arrive 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.(Photo by FATHI NASRI / AFP)
    Jewish pilgrims arrive 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.(Photo by FATHI NASRI / AFP)
  • A picture taken on April 26, 2021 shows a internal view of the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa on the first day of the annual pilgrimage, in the Mediterranean Tunisian resort island of Djerba.(Photo by FATHI NASRI / AFP)
    A picture taken on April 26, 2021 shows a internal view of the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa on the first day of the annual pilgrimage, in the Mediterranean Tunisian resort island of Djerba.(Photo by FATHI NASRI / AFP)

DJERBA, Tunisia — The annual Jewish pilgrimage to the ancient Ghriba synagogue on Tunisia’s Djerba island started Monday 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 canceled 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, was in Djerba with about 20 French tourists.

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

A Tunisian Jewish caretaker sits on the entrance of the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa on the first day of the annual pilgrimage in the Mediterranean Tunisian resort island of Djerba on April 26, 2021.(Photo by FATHI NASRI / AFP)

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

Beginning on the holiday of Lag B’Omer, 33 days after the start of the Jewish festival of Passover, the pilgrimage usually attracts huge numbers of Jewish worshippers from across the world.

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

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

A 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 (Photo by FATHI NASRI / AFP)

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 number 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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