By Houda Trabelsi
Jews are back in Djerba.
Visits to Africa’s oldest synagogue fell in the wake of a 2002 terrorist attack. The annual Jewish pilgrimage to Tunisia’s Djerba was cancelled altogether last year due to the revolution.
This year’s season, however, foretells a better future in coming years for the Tunisian island’s historic temple.
“We used to await the pilgrimage season each year,” taxi driver Faouzi Khanchouch told Magharebia on the road to Ghriba synagogue.
“It was always season of work for us, as the number of tourists in the region increased,” he continued. “But in recent years, the number of Jews coming to Tunisia declined.”
Now, after this year’s event, he added: “We hope they return in the coming years because the people of Djerba welcome them, especially since we live with them with love and peace here, without any discrimination or problems.”
On May 7th Jews returned to the historic temple en masse after President Moncef Marzouki pledged to maintain security.
Synagogue president Perez Trabelsi said that around 500 Jews from Europe joined about 1,000 Jewish Tunisians for the pilgrimage that usually begins on the 33rd day of Passover.
“The success of the Ghriba pilgrimage season is a test for the success of the Tunisian tourist season,” he said.
“Tunisia’s Jews are trying to help the economy of our country and are telling everyone to come, that Tunisia is secure,” Trabelsi said. “Security is very important and with improved conditions, we hope Ghriba Synagogue regains its global radiance.”
One visitor wrote a prayer on an egg and placed in a cave built in the wall of the house of prayer.
“Ghriba is a sacred and protected place” Tunisian Jew Michele Lescia said. “Lord, Protect Tunisia from all evil,” her prayer read.
“I am sure to come from the capital every year for the pilgrimage and I encourage my Jewish friends abroad to come to our country,” she said.
Khoudir Henia, a Tunisian Jew and Ghriba Synagogue official agreed, saying Tunisia was “safe and secure”. Henia explained that Jews have been making the pilgrimage for nearly 200 years.
Kourin Mazouz, a Tunisian Jew who had recently lost her husband, said she was in search of comfort and tranquillity while in Djerba.
“I want to tell my children that co-existence between all religions exists and is possible. Tunisia offers the example of coexistence between Jews and Muslims,” Mazouz said.
“My mom always tells me there are no religious differences, as humanity is what brings us together and this is what I found in Djerba,” her son told Magharebia. “I’m very pleased and will make repeat visits in the coming years.”
In closing statements at the massive gathering, Tourism Minister Elyes Fakhfekh called on participants to become ambassadors of good will, letting everyone know: “Tunisia is a country of tolerance and communication between cultures and religions.”
“The pilgrimage this year came at a time when Tunis is adopting its liberal and democratic path,” he said.
“Tunisia’s Jews are tied to Tunisia and contribute to its development and prosperity, at home and abroad,” the minister added.