Virus nixes annual pilgrimage to Tunisia’s Ghriba synagogue

With places of worship shuttered across the North African country, thousands who normally visit the site for Lag B’Omer will have to wait until ‘the danger of the virus has passed’

A Jewish man rests in La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015.
A Jewish man rests in La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015.

The annual Jewish pilgrimage to the ancient Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba has been called off because of the coronavirus pandemic, the organizers said Tuesday.

Beginning on the Jewish festival of Lag B’Omer, 33 days after the start of Passover, the pilgrimage — which had been scheduled for May 7-13 — usually attracts thousands of Jewish worshipers from across the world.

But Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa the synagogue, believed to have been founded in 586 BCE by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, has been shut as part of steps to curb the spread of coronavirus which has infected almost 900 people and cost 38 lives in Tunisia.

“We will only reopen the synagogue once the danger of the virus has passed,” at the same time as mosques and other places of worship are reopened, pilgrimage organizer Perez Trabelsi told AFP.

Jews gather at the Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia’s Mediterranean resort island of Djerba on the first day of the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the synagogue on May 2, 2018. (AFP Photo/Fethi Belaid)

In October, Tunisia’s new president Kais Saied, then on the campaign trail, rejected allowing Israelis to visit the Ghriba synagogue.

Saied seemed to express tolerance of Jews, saying that Jewish people with no Israeli passport were welcome to visit the country’s synagogues. But he rejected “dealings with Zionists,” whom he accused of displacing Palestinians.

Hundreds of Israelis, many of them of Tunisian origin, traditionally visit the synagogue for the annual pilgrimage.

In February Saied sacked tourism minister René Trabelsi, the son of the Ghriba pilgrimage organizer, who had earlier said Israelis would be welcome to visit.

“There’s no normalization, as that would require bilateral agreements. That the tourists come is no normalization. They have a right to visit even if they live in Israel,” Trabelsi said.

Trabelsi had been the country’s first Jewish minister in decades. He is currently in a Paris hospital after becoming ill with COVID-19.

In this file photo taken on May 02, 2018, Rene Trabelsi speaks on the phone outside the Ghriba Synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

Tunisia’s small Jewish community is still recovering from a suicide bombing claimed by Al-Qaeda at the synagogue in 2002 that killed 21 people. Before that, some 8,000 pilgrims used to travel to Djerba for the annual celebration.

French Tunisian Jewish women pray at the Ghriba synagogue in the Tunisian resort island of Djerba during the annual Jewish Lag B’Omer pilgrimage, May 25, 2016. (AFP Photo/Fethi Belaid)

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.

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.

Trabelsi had been credited with helping the country’s tourism sector rebound over the last two years.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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