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April 29, 2013 9:00 am

Jews Welcomed Back to Oldest Synagogue in Tunisia for First Time Since “Arab Spring”

avatar by Zach Pontz

The El Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The oldest synagogue in Tunisia opened its doors Sunday to visitors for the first time since protests broke out in the country in 2011. Jewish pilgrims visited Ghriba, Africa’s oldest synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, where security was high to prevent any violence.

The protests in 2011 eventually led to the ouster of the country’s leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and inspired similar movements in countries throughout the region. But it also proved problematic for the Jewish community in Tunisia, and security concerns prevented the use of Ghriba.

This year the pilgrimage, which started Friday, took place in a festival-like atmosphere with a final procession attended by Tourism Minister Jamel Ghamra and Tunisia’s Grand Rabbi Haim Bitan.

According to legend, the synagogue was founded in 586 BC by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

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“There’s an impressive security presence¬† which is a positive step that sends a message to the Jews in the world and says Tunisia protects them, although the county’s leadership is Muslim,” Perez Trabelsi, head of the Jewish community in Djerba, was quoted by Israel’s Channel 2 as saying. “Jews in the world should see the effort of the government and understand that they can come back here now and in the coming years.”

Authorities had reinforced security around the ancient mosque and the Jewish quarter of Djerba for the pilgrimage to prevent any attacks by radical Muslim groups, the AFP reported.

Beginning 33 days after the start of the Jewish Passover festival, the Ghriba pilgrimage used to attract thousands of pilgrims and tourists but their number fell dramatically after an April 2002 bombing that killed 21 people.

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