Tunisia secures Jewish festival, sends message to tourists

Sunday 29/05/2016
Tunisia values tolerance

DJERBA (Tunisia) - Elite police personnel, backed by soldiers, were deployed to protect Jew­ish tourists taking part in a festival at Africa’s oldest synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.
The large security presence was also meant to reassure countries from where millions of tourists used to visit the North African country that Tunisian security forces have retaken the initiative following ter­rorists’ attacks that have kept many visitors away over the past year.
Tunisia’s tourism industry is reel­ing from attacks in 2015 claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and a Sousse beach resort, which killed a total 60 people, all but one of them foreigners.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned on May 21st that his government had information about threatened attacks against pilgrims to Djerba.
“We thank our police and army for the efforts they are making to make Tunisia safe and secure for its people and tourists. Tunisia is now safe after having made huge pro­gress,” said René Trabelsi, an organ­iser of the pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue, as a helicopter hovered overhead. Dozens of police and plain-clothes intelligence agents watched the area around the syna­gogue during the pilgrimage.
The island’s Jewish district, Hara Kebira, was cordoned off and visi­tors were subjected to systematic searches. Security around and at the gates of the many hotels on the island was also beefed up.
“Pilgrims are escorted by the po­lice like heads of state. This shows Tunisia’s determination to protect its guests,” said Trabelsi, who is also a Paris-based travel operator.
Authorities sent three ministers and the deputy parliament speaker to hammer home the message that Tunisia values tolerance, diversity and coexistence of religions and cultures.
Tourism Minister Salma Elloumi Rekik told visitors: “By your pres­ence in this festive occasion, you confirm that Tunisia will remain a land of friendship and joy despite the challenges of violence and ha­tred.”
Knox Thames, the US State De­partment’s special adviser for reli­gious minorities, who attended the pilgrimage said: “We appreciate the commitment of the Tunisian gov­ernment to protect this community, which has resided in the country for more than 2.500 years.”
His colleague at the State Depart­ment Ira Forman, special envoy for anti-Semitism, said: “I discovered that the Jewish community in Djer­ba is unique in many ways.”