Organizers of a Jewish pilgrimage to Africa's oldest synagogue, on the Tunisian island of Djerba, said Wednesday they are hoping for a revival this year, after an Al-Qaeda attack in 2002 and post-revolution unrest caused a slump in attendance.
Some 450 foreign pilgrims as well as Tunisian Jews are expected for the event that runs from Friday to Sunday on the Mediterranean resort island, AFP reported. This is a pale shadow of the thousands that once came every year on Lag Ba'Omer to the 2,500-year-old place of worship.
A suicide attack at Ghriba in April 2002 that was claimed by Al-Qaeda killed 21 people and triggered a dramatic decline in turnout. While numbers have recovered slightly, they remain far below the 8,000 that came before the attack.
The event was then cancelled in 2011, with the country on edge after an uprising toppled veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The rise of Muslim extremists in Tunisia since then has only fuelled the fears of potential pilgrims.
Perez Trabelsi, one of the organizers, told AFP he understood why people were reluctant to come, given the instability that has plagued Tunisia since the revolution, but remained defiantly optimistic.
"There could be 1,000 people, but that would be fine. Next year there will be 2,000 and then 3,000. Every year there will be more," he said, while voicing confidence that Tunisia's Islamist-led government would provide adequate security.
"There will be a lot of police, and strong efforts are being made to reinforce security," he said, adding that there were no incidents last year.
A security source, cited by the official Tunisian TAP news agency, said reinforcements were first deployed on Saturday and that the security forces had been conducting special anti-crime operations in the region since February.
"The reinforcements will be deployed, in particular, in the tourist areas and at the island's entrance, as well as in the neighborhoods of the Tunisian Jewish residents in Djerba... and at the Ghriba synagogue," the source said.
The once-banned Islamist Ennahda party received 89 out of 217 seats, more than triple the seats won by any other party, in Tunisia’s first democratic election after the revolution. It subsequently said that Islamic law will not be enshrined in the country's new Constitution.
Tunisia’s president, Moncef Marzouki, has called on the country’s Jewish population to return to his country, saying Tunisia’s Jews are full-fledged citizens and those who had left the country were welcome to return.
But while the organizers of the annual pilgrimage express confidence in the security arrangements at Djerba, other groups have raised concerns over an apparent rise in anti-Semitic language, accusing the authorities of not taking the problem seriously.