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Tunisian Jewish pilgrimage sees low turnout amid security fears

A French Jewish pilgrim visits the historic Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba
— Djerba (Tunisia) (AFP)

Only a dozen pilgrims turned up Friday at this year's Jewish pilgrimage on Tunisia's island of Djerba amid heightened security concerns after a deadly attack last year and as the Israel-Hamas war rages in Gaza.

The pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue, Africa's oldest, usually draws thousands of pilgrims from Europe, Israel and beyond, attracting international and local tourists as well.

But on the first day of the pilgrimage event this year, only about a dozen worshippers were present -- almost none of them foreigners -- with a heavy police and National Guard presence.

"This year, we noticed a lack in demand," its organiser, Rene Trabelsi, told AFP.

"And given the war in the Middle East, the management took a wise and intelligent decision to cancel the festivities," he added, also citing last year's attack which left five people dead.

"We only kept the religious and spiritual aspect, an obligation of the pilgrimage."

Earlier on Friday, plainclothes police officers and National Guardsmen barred reporters and tourists from entering the ancient synagogue.

"No one enters, except Jewish people," a National Guard officer told an AFP correspondent at the temple's entrance, where metal detectors had been erected.

Authorities did not say how many pilgrims had arrived by Friday morning, but Trabelsi said only a few dozens are expect to pass through the three-day event.

"We expect 30 to 50 people to come by Monday," the last day of the pilgrimage, he said. "We went from 6,000-7,000 to 30-50 people."

-'It hurts'-

A Jewish man interviewed by AFP in the streets of Djerba said he and others from his community "decided not to go to Ghriba" this year, at the behest of their rabbi.

A pilgrim lights a candle inside the Ghriba synagogue

Yet Trabelsi said he was "not surprised" that this year's pilgrimage saw only a handful of pilgrims.

On May 9 last year, a Tunisian policeman opened fire, shooting dead three police officers and two worshippers, whom authorities identified as a Tunisian and a French national.

A suicide truck bombing in 2002, claimed by Al-Qaeda, killed 21 at the synagogue.

Another attack in 1985 by a Tunisian guard killed four worshippers and a police officer.

But security measures had since been tightened.

"We weren't expecting that to happen last year, because security was excellent," said Hayim Haddad, a pilgrim. "It hurt us a lot and we are still hurt, that's why there aren't as many people here today."

After rumours that this year's pilgrimage would be cancelled altogether, organisers said it "will be limited" due to safety concerns.

"When I see it empty like this, it hurts," Haddad added, tears in his eyes.

- 'Better than nothing' -

Djerba, whose palm trees and beach resorts attract flocks of tourists each year, is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the region outside of Israel.

The number of pilgrims at the Ghriba synagogue was far lower this year than the usual thousands

The pilgrimage is at the heart of the Jewish tradition in Tunisia, where only about 1,500 members of the faith still live -- mainly on the island -- compared to around 100,000 in the 1950s, before many left for Israel and France.

The usual festivities of the pilgrimage had this year been replaced with sombre prayers by the handful of pilgrims present.

Janette, who only gave her first name, said she had made the pilgrimage every year since 2003, but this year's was different.

"It's God's plan," she told AFP. "It's better than nothing. You come and light a candle, and it's better than nothing."

Organisers say more than 5,000 people, mostly from abroad, joined last year's pilgrimage.

But, despite everything, Trabelsi remained optimistic about the future.

"We see in Europe a lot of anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues and people of Jewish faith," he said. "In Tunisia, since October 7, we have had no anti-Semitic acts."

"What's important is that we are here and we have the support of authorities," he added. "Prayers go for peace and the end of wars. It will be this year's message from Ghriba."