A Jewish worshiper prays during the pilgrimag
A Jewish worshiper prays during the pilgrimagReuters

Jewish pilgrims began arriving on Friday at Ghriba, Africa's oldest synagogue, on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba for an annual gathering taking place amid heavy security.

Police and soldiers deployed along the main road to Ghriba, with checkpoints set up to search vehicles.  

The organisers hope to receive 2,000 people during the three-day event which ends on Sunday, a representative of the small Jewish community in Ghriba, Perez Trabelsi, told AFP.

Beginning on Lag Ba'omer - 33 days after the start of the Jewish Pesach (Passover) festival - the Ghriba pilgrimage used to attract up to 8,000 pilgrims and tourists.

But attendance slumped after a suicide attack claimed by Al Qaeda killed 21 people in April 2002, most of them German tourists.

Following the attack, and before the 2011 revolution that toppled long-time strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the annual event attracted around 3,000 visitors on average. After his ouster, which ushered the Islamist Enahada party into power, attendance dropped even further, with only 500 Jews talking part in the pilgrimage to Djerba in 2013, according to Djerba Salon news site.

It takes place this year amid controversy surrounding the authorization of Tunisian entry permits to Israeli visitors, which Trabelsi said had had a negative impact.

"People are afraid, and have cancelled their visit, including some people coming from France who have relatives in Israel. They cancelled their plans because they couldn't come together," he said.

A group of Tunisian politicians has argued that the deputy interior minister for security, Ridha Sfar, was effectively promoting "normalisation" with the Jewish state by allowing Israelis to visit Tunisia.

Like most other countries in the Arab world, the North African nation does not recognize the Jewish state.

Sfar and Tourism Minister Amel Karboul were the target of unsuccessful censure motions last Friday, which were finally withdrawn shortly before lawmakers in the Islamist-dominated parliament were to vote on them.  

The annual pilgrimage to Ghriba is central to the traditions of Tunisia's historic Jewish community the Jewish community of Djerba itself dates back 2,500 years; Jews were such a significant part of life on the island that it was once known as "the island of the kohanim," after the high proportion of members of the Jewish priestly caste, or kohanim, within the Jewish community there.

But Tunisia's Jewish community has seen its numbers fall dramatically in recent decades - from an estimated 100,000 at the time of independence in 1956 to only approximately 1,500 today - due to a wave of violent anti-Semitism which forced nearly one million Jews to flee Arab countries throughout the Middle East in the twentieth century.

According to legend, the Ghriba synagogue was founded in 586 BCE by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.