By Monia Ghanmi
Thousands of Jews from around the world will soon make their first pilgrimage to Tunisia’s Ghriba synagogue since the country’s Arab Spring revolution.
Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been invited to the May 9th event as a guest of honour.
“Tunisia, a country of tolerance and openness, welcomes the visit of Jewish pilgrims to the Ghriba site in Djerba, as they were accustomed to for decades,” Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said at an April 16th World Tourism Organisation conference.
Last year, for the first time in two decades, the annual pilgrimage to Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island was cancelled over security concerns. The synagogue, the oldest in Africa, was also the site of a 2002 al-Qaeda terrorist attack that left 21 people dead.
Organisers of the Djerba pilgrimage decided to resume the event after the Tunisian government pledged to provide security for the visitors.
“The government will ensure through its democratic security apparatus to limit some phenomena and curtail some behaviours so as to provide favourable conditions for tourists to visit Tunisia,” Jebali added.
Tunisia receives about 6,000 Jewish visitors at the synagogue annually, mainly from Europe and Israel.
This year, about 2,000 Jews are expected to come to the island of Djerba, 500 of them from abroad and the rest residents of Tunisia, according to pilgrimage supervisor Rene Trabelsi.
“We will resume the pilgrimage season this year after the halt imposed by the events of the Tunisian revolution, thanks to the government’s assurances of providing appropriate security conditions for its Jewish visitors,” he told TAP.
In recent months, Tunisia’s Jewish community has been the target of vitriolic attacks by Salafists. One radical preacher went so far as to tell followers to “kill Jews” in a sermon widely denounced across Tunisia.
The head of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, said on more than one occasion that the Jews have lived peacefully in Tunisia for centuries and they are citizens with full rights and duties, like others.
On April 11th, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki visited the Ghriba synagogue to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the suicide attack that targeted Ghriba synagogue, assuring the Jewish minority that they enjoyed full rights, just like Tunisian Muslims.
Marzouki asserted that any discrimination against Jewish citizens in their lives, their property and their holy places was unacceptable.
“They are part and parcel of our people and they have full rights and duties, and hostility against them is against all Tunisians,” Marzouki said.
The Tunisian President also stressed “Tunisians’ rejection of all forms of violence against innocent civilians, out of an abiding faith in the values of tolerance and moderation advocated by the Islamic religion, as well as the principles of human rights.”
The Jewish community living in Tunisia is estimated at 2,000 people, with half that number residing on the island of Djerba.
Marzouki pledged to secure the protection of all Tunisian citizens and that they would all be treated equally.
The visit by Marzouki, the first president to enter Ghriba synagogue, was warmly received by Tunisian Jews.
“Marzouki’s visit carries many meanings, because it will increase support for rapprochement between Jews and Muslims from the people of Tunisia and promote peaceful co-existence among them,” said Perez Trabelsi, head of the Jewish community in Djerba and president of the Ghriba board.
“And it is a message of reassurance and encouragement of all Jews of the world to celebrate this year by visiting exotic Ghriba in total peace,” Trabelsi added.
Haim Bitan, the chief rabbi of Tunisia, said that “the holy, ancient and simple Ghriba synagogue is the address of brotherhood between Muslims and Jews.”