DJERBA, Tunisia (AP) — Under unprecedented security, the Tunisian island of Djerba hosted an annual Jewish pilgrimage amid raised fears of religious violence after deadly Islamic extremist attacks last year scared away visitors.
Soldiers guarded the area in southern Tunisia and special forces carried out checks of vehicles and hotels.
The Israeli government reportedly issued a warning earlier this month advising Israelis not to travel to Tunisia for the event.
Under a sweltering heat, crowds gathered for ceremonies Wednesday and Thursday at the 2,500-year-old Ghriba synagogue, which was targeted in a 2002 attack. The pilgrimage used to draw huge crowds but security concerns have deterred many people from coming. Still, travel agency Rene Trabelsi estimated 2,000 visitors came this year, including about 600 from abroad and 50 from Israel.
Rabbi Raphael Cohen of Safat in northern Israel was among them. In a black suit and long white beard, he praised Ghriba as a "symbol of tolerance and peaceful cohabitation" between Muslims and Jews, and welcomed what he called "a reassuring security presence."
Knox Thames, special adviser at the U.S. State Department for religious minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, also joined the ceremonies, saying Tunisia should serve as a model for allowing religious minorities to practice freely.
Legend holds that the Ghriba synagogue was built around 500 BC by Jews who had fled Jerusalem after the Roman destruction of Solomon's Temple.
Senior political and religious figures from Tunisia and abroad, including Tourism Minister Selma Elloumi, took part in the opening ceremony Wednesday.
"Tunisia will remain a land of openness, conviviality and joy, despite the challenges of violence and hate," she said.
The pilgrimage event wrapped up Thursday with the procession of a bronze Torah, candle lighting and a ritual involving placing an egg in a cavity at the synagogue, with prayers written on the eggshells for healing ailments or fertility.
Pilgrim Alice Tal came from Paris to offer thanks. "Last year, my daughter left an egg with a marriage wish. Her wish was granted, she is getting married next week."