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 aimed at stemming 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 faithful, mainly Sephardim, who are able to make the trip from abroad.
Jews traditionally celebrate the Jewish festival of Lag BaOmer in Djerba with religious rites but also with music and dance. Some from Tunisia’s overwhelmingly Muslim population, including officials, also traditionally attend the celebration.
Annual Jewish pilgrimage to Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba gets underway pic.twitter.com/rPuCJtBT0E— Middle East Eye (@MiddleEastEye) May 6, 2015
Last year the event was cancelled due to the pandemic, but this year it is taking place — albeit with fewer numbers and 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.
“This year, we pray for the whole world,” Trabelsi said.
Beginning 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.”
Tunisia plans to seek UNESCO World Heritage status for island of Djerba - site of Africa's oldest synagogue and an annual Jewish pilgrimage pic.twitter.com/OpFzMD4RKG— AFP News Agency (@AFP) May 15, 2017
Before the pandemic, security used to be the highest concern of the authorities since a Tunisian suicide bomber detonated a gas truck in front of the synagogue killing 16 European tourists and three Tunisians, on April 11, 2002. The terrorist attack was claimed by al-Qaeda.
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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