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Jews ease back into pilgrimage to Tunisia

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:03 p.m.
Reuters
A Jewish woman places a candle during the first day of pilgrimage at the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba April 26, 2013. The Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, home to most of Tunisia's Jews, is built on the site of a Jewish temple that is believed to date back almost 1,900 years and attracts pilgrims each year. The pilgrimage ends April 28. REUTERS/Anis Mili (TUNISIA - Tags: SOCIETY RELIGION)

DJERBA, Tunisia — Under a bright Mediterranean sun on Saturday, Jews whose forebears once thronged Tunisia are trekking to a celebrated synagogue under the protection of police — as organizers try to inject new momentum to an annual pilgrimage that has been depleted in recent years by fears of anti-Semitism.

Jewish leaders hope the three-day pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue, Africa's oldest, on the island of Djerba is regaining momentum after attendance plummeted in the wake of a 2002 al-Qaida bombing and lingering safety concerns from Tunisia's revolution two years ago.

The pilgrimage evokes a larger issue for Tunisia: How to convince Jews and other foreigners that stability has returned enough to merit a visit and help revive a weakened economy. The tourism trade accounts for about 400,000 jobs and 7 percent of economic output in Tunisia, an overwhelmingly Muslim country of nearly 11 million.

Despite setbacks in recent years, Tunisia's Jews were optimistic.

“This year will be better. The atmosphere is good, and the preparations have been made carefully,” said Perez Trabelsi, president of Ghriba's operating committee and a Djerba native. “Attendance will go up from one year to the next, to return to its top level — like before.”

At its peak in 2000, about 8,000 Jews came — many from Israel, Italy and France, where they or their forebears had moved over the years. Such crowds have not returned since an al-Qaida-linked militant detonated a truck bomb at the synagogue in 2002, killing 21 people, mostly German tourists — and badly jolting the now-tiny Jewish community.

The pilgrimage was called off in 2011 after Tunisia's revolution, when street protests ousted longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

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