DJERBA, Tunisia (AFP) – Thousands of Jews on Friday began an annual pilgrimage to Africa's oldest synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba (dating back to 586).
"We have nearly 6,000 visitors this year," Perez Trabelsi, head of the Djerba Jewish community and president of the synagogue, told AFP.
Most of the pilgrims -- around 4,500 came from France -- while around a thousand Israelis came via Egypt, Jordan or Turkey due to the absence of direct air links with Israel.
Trabelsi called for direct flights to be established between Israel and Tunisia, adding that it would triple the number of visitors coming from Israel.
France's chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim would take part in the pilgrimage for the first time this year "in order to give a message of peace (and) of respect for others. "I am very moved and very impressed by the Jews' way of life in Tunisia and their strict strict attachment to an ancient tradition," Bernheim told AFP.
In 2002, an attack at the Ghriba shrine killed 21 people when a homicide bomber rammed the wall of the synagogue with a lorry laden with natural gas, which blew up killing 14 German tourists, five Tunisians and two French visitors. The Al-Qaeda network claimed responsibility for the attack.
The Jewish community in Tunisia is still one of the largest in the Arab world but its numbers have dropped from 100,000 on independence from France in 1956 to around 1,500 today. Most emigrated to France or Israel.
Nearly half of those who remain live in Djerba.
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Below are photos of the Djerba Synagogue (courtesy of Sam Schleman).