Tunisian Jews mark Lag B’Omer in ancient Ghriba synagogue
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Tunisian Jews mark Lag B’Omer in ancient Ghriba synagogue

Festival on island of Djerba is first since Jewish community leader who organized event was named tourism minister

A Jewish pilgrim lights a candle on the first day of the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the El Ghriba Synagogue, Africa's oldest, on Tunisia's Mediterranean resort island of Djerba on May 22, 2019. (Fathi Nasri/AFP)
A Jewish pilgrim lights a candle on the first day of the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the El Ghriba Synagogue, Africa's oldest, on Tunisia's Mediterranean resort island of Djerba on May 22, 2019. (Fathi Nasri/AFP)

DJERBA, Tunisia — Worshippers prayed, lit candles and wrote wishes on eggs as an annual Jewish pilgrimage to Africa’s oldest synagogue got under way in Tunisia on Wednesday.

Hundreds of pilgrims converged on the Ghriba synagogue on the Mediterranean island of Djerba where one of the last Jewish communities in the Arab world lives.

They were joined by government ministers and other dignitaries to celebrate the Lag B’Omer festival.

The event, which starts 33 days after the start of the Jewish Passover festival, coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this year for the first time since 1987.

A French Jew holds eggs, on which she wrote her wishes, that will be placed in a cave under the Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia’s Mediterranean resort island of Djerba on the first day of the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the synagogue May 2, 2018. (AFP/Fethi Belaid)

A fast-breaking meal is due to be shared by Muslims and Jews on Wednesday evening in Djerba.

“It’s not easy to organize all this while people are fasting here. They are tired, but we are as welcome as usual,” said Laura Tuil-Journo from France.

Tunisian Tourism Minister Rene Trabelsi speaks during an interview with AFP on May 8, 2019 in Tunis. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

This year’s pilgrimage is the first since Rene Trabelsi, who has been co-organizing the festival for years, was appointed as Tunisia’s first Jewish cabinet minister in decades, in charge of tourism.

“This year it is packed. People now come with full confidence, especially as Mr. Trabelsi became a minister,” Tuil-Journo said.

Several hundred police officers and soldiers, backed by tanks and helicopters, have been deployed to protect pilgrims.

The community is still recovering from a suicide bombing claimed by Al-Qaeda at the synagogue in 2002 that killed 21 people.

Workers repaint the main entrance of the Ghriba synagogue in the island of Djerba, Tunisia, April, 12, 2002 after a truck carrying natural gas crashed into it and exploded the day before, killing 21 people. (AP/Hassene Dridi)

Before that, some 8,000 pilgrims used to travel to Djerba for the annual celebration.

The number plunged afterwards but has since recovered somewhat.

Tunisia’s tourism industry was also left reeling by attacks on a museum and a tourist resort in 2015 that left dozens dead, including 59 foreigners.

This year organizers expect more than 5,000 pilgrims, including Israelis, to visit the synagogue, believed to have been founded in 586 BCE by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

The number of Jews in Tunisia has fallen significantly, from around 100,000 before independence from France in 1956 to an estimated 1,500 today, most of whom live in Djerba.

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