Prime minister joins Jewish pilgrims as Tunisia seeks World Heritage status for Djerba island
Tunis - Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed became the first Tunisian head of government to join thousands of Jewish pilgrims at the annual journey to El Ghriba synagogue, which is considered Africa’s oldest Jewish shrine.
Chahed’s surprise attendance at the event May 14 was aimed at underscoring Tunisia’s attachment to the values of tolerance and openness and its rejection of the wave of bigoted extremism facing the region.
Tunisian officials announced the government’s intention to seek UNESCO World Heritage status for the island of Djerba, the home of El Ghriba synagogue and a popular tourism site on the country’s Mediterranean coast.
About 3,000 pilgrims, mostly from Europe but including a number from Israel, reaffirmed the traditional image of the island of Djerba as an “oasis of peace” against a background of religious and sectarian strife in the Middle East and North Africa.
The symbolism of Chahed’s visit to El Ghriba synagogue was most apparent when he sang the national anthem with visiting Tunisian Jews to highlight the bonds between Tunisians of all faiths, including Judaism.
Chahed was accompanied by the ministers of the interior, culture, religious affairs and tourism — the largest number of Tunisian cabinet members to attend the Jewish festival in recent history.
Many Tunisians see a link between the prosperity of the country and the fortunes of their Jewish community.
Tumult during the first years of Tunisia’s independence in 1956 and repercussions of wars and violence in the Middle East led to a decline in the number of Tunisian Jews from an estimated 100,000 before 1956 to about 2,000 currently. Most of them reside in Djerba or Tunis.
Jews, like most other Tunisians, have weathered the uncomfortable political and social climate since the “Arab spring” protests, which ousted former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
Radical Islamist Salafists desecrated Jewish gravestones in 2013 in a wave of attacks against Tunisia’s Sufi shrines and cultural events, including art exhibits and films.
Since the election of secularist President Beji Caid Essebsi at the end of 2014 and the subsequent legislative elections in which his Nidaa Tounes party came first, Salafist-inspired incidents have ceased.
“We want to be present at this pilgrimage to highlight two messages: Tunisia is an open country, a tolerant country reconciled with its identity of religious diversity. We are all Tunisians. We have no problems with religions. We put Tunisia above all issues,” Chahed said while standing in the midst of Jewish pilgrims.
Culture Minister Mohamed Zine el-Abidine said the country was applying to UNESCO for World Heritage status to Djerba because of its “cultural and religious uniqueness.”
He was quoted by Agence France- Presse (AFP) saying the application would highlight the rich religious heritage of the island, which is home to centuries-old mosques, churches and synagogues.
UNESCO has registered eight Tunisian landmarks as World Heritage sites, including Carthage, the capital of the Phoenician Empire on the western Mediterranean.
Tunisian Jews make the annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue on Djerba to commemorate the death of Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century kabbalistic rabbi who is famous for his religious book known as the “Zohar.”
Before the 2011 upheaval, the Hiloula Jewish spiritual journey to El Ghriba was attended by as many as 10,000 Jews from around the world. The number of Jewish participants eventually fell to a few hundred in 2013-15 but rebounded to 1,500 last year.
Tunisian leaders are showing keen interest to promote the Djerba pilgrimage to keep bridges open with Tunisian Jews living in Europe, Israel and the United States.
Tunisians tend to see the level of attendance at the Jewish festival as a barometer for the forthcoming tourist season. Tunisia was one of the main tourism destinations in Africa before 2011, despite a suicide bombing at El Ghriba synagogue in 2002.
Much more damaging to the tourism industry were two jihadist attacks in 2015, in which more than 50 foreign tourists were killed.
Government officials have said there has been a 34% rebound in tourist arrivals from Europe in the first three months of this year compared to the same period in 2016.
Tunisia deployed thousands of armed soldiers and police to guard the 3-day Djerba pilgrimage, which was incident free. Israel had warned against attending the event, citing what it called the threat of jihadist attacks.