Hundreds of Jews were flocking to the Tunisian island of Djerba Wednesday for an annual pilgrimage to Africa’s oldest synagogue with security tightened after the Bardo museum massacre and warnings of extremist attacks.
Barriers have been erected on access routes to Djerba in southern Tunisia and police checkpoints set up around Hara Kbira, the Jewish district of the island, an AFP journalist said.
The number of pilgrims visiting the Ghriba synagogue has fallen sharply since a 2002 suicide bombing claimed by Al-Qaeda that killed 21.
This year’s visit follows a March 18 attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, claimed by the ISIS, which killed 21 foreign tourists and a Tunisian policeman.
“There is a lot of security, there are soldiers and police everywhere and that is very reassuring to us,” said Lorine Bendayan, who made this year’s trip from France.
Apart from Tunisian pilgrims, some 500 others are expected in Djerba for the two-day religious festival from France, Israel, Italy and Britain, according to the organizers.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that his country had learned of “concrete threats” of terror attacks against Jewish or Israeli targets in the North African country, prompting a quick denial from Tunis.
But many of the Jewish pilgrims at Djerba Wednesday were defiant.
“We are not afraid. We don’t care what Israel has warned,” said Bendayan.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli said the warning was unfounded and accused Israel of trying to “damage the reputation of Tunisia.”
And during a visit to Djerba two days earlier, he insisted: “Tunisia is a safe country and Djerba too is a safe city. Visitors from the world over are welcome.”
“What I am saying now is a response to many who cast doubt over Tunisia’s security and its capacity to secure celebrations.”
Pilgrims visit the tombs of famous rabbis for the Lag Baomer Jewish festival, including on Djerba island, where one of the last Jewish communities in the Arab world still lives.
It is believed the Ghriba synagogue was founded in 586 BC by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
Tunisian Jews now number around 1,500, compared with an estimated 100,000 when the country gained independence from France in 1956.
Authorities have been struggling to reassure foreign visitors they will be safe in the wake of the Bardo killings, which have hit its key tourism sector that accounts for seven percent of the country’s GDP.
Tourism was already suffering from the fallout of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution and organisers say the few hundred Jewish visitors expected for this year’s Djerba pilgrimage are a far cry from the 8,000 or so who made the trip before 2002.
“Before the (Bardo) attack we were expecting a return of pilgrims (to pre-2002 levels),” pilgrimage official Rene Trabelsi told local radio.
“After the attack – and this is only logical and normal – many people are afraid.”