DJERBA, Tunisia (AP) — Under a bright Mediterranean sun Saturday, Jews whose forebears once thronged Tunisia are trekking to a celebrated synagogue under the protection of police — as organizers try to inject new momentum to an annual pilgrimage that's been depleted in recent years by fears of anti-Semitism.
Jewish leaders hope the three-day pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue, Africa's oldest, on the island of Djerba is regaining momentum after attendance plummeted in the wake of a 2002 al-Qaida bombing and lingering safety concerns following Tunisia's revolution two years ago.
The pilgrimage evokes a larger issue for Tunisia: How to convince Jews and other foreigners that stability has returned enough to merit a visit and help revive a weakened economy. The tourism trade accounts for about 400,000 jobs and 7 percent of economic output in Tunisia, an overwhelmingly Muslim country of nearly 11 million.
Despite the setbacks in recent years, Tunisia's Jews were sounding optimistic.
"This year will be better. The atmosphere is good, and the preparations have been made carefully," said Perez Trabelsi, the president of Ghriba's operating committee, and a Djerba native. "Attendance will go up from one year to the next, to return to its top level — like before."
At its peak in 2000, about 8,000 Jews came — many from Israel, Italy and France, where they or their forebears had moved over the years. Such crowds haven't returned since an al-Qaida-linked militant detonated a truck bomb at the synagogue in 2002, killing 21 people, mostly German tourists — and badly jolting the now-tiny Jewish community.
The pilgrimage was called off in 2011 in the wake of Tunisia's revolution, when major street protests ousted longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia, and some ultraconservative Muslims called Salafis chanted anti-Semitic slogans at their rallies. Last year, the pilgrimage resumed on a tiny scale: Only 100 or so foreigners came. This year, community leaders hope 300 to 500 will have come.
Rene Trabelsi, a Paris-based tour operator, said the Tunisian government — led by the moderate Islamic party Ennahda — has "gone beyond our hopes" in providing security measures, police and troops for the pilgrimage.
After Saturday's Sabbath, the three-day pilgrimage was expected to culminate Sunday with the sale of necklaces, scarves and other craftwork to raise money for the synagogue. On Friday, as it got underway, families lit candles and the faithful marched through a white-washed archway lined with bunting and Tunisia's red crescent-and-star flag into the ornate, blue-and-white synagogue.
Jews have been living in Djerba since 500 B.C. The Jewish population has shrunk to 1,500, down from 100,000 in the 1960s. Most left following the 1967 war between Israel and Arab countries, and Socialist economic policies adopted by the government in the late 1960s also drove away many Jewish business owners.
Djerba, a dusty island of palm trees and olive groves, lures hundreds of thousands of tourists every year — mainly Germans and French — for its sandy beaches and rich history. The Ghriba synagogue, said to date to 586 B.C., itself once drew up to 2,000 visitors per day, Jewish leaders have said.
The site is rich with legend. The first Jews who arrived were said to have brought a stone from the ancient temple of Jerusalem that was destroyed by the Babylonians. The stone is kept in a grotto at the synagogue. Women and children descend into the grotto to place eggs scrawled with wishful messages on them.
The pilgrims, mostly Sephardic Jews with roots in Tunisia, come for the festivities starting 33 days after the Jewish holiday of Passover that include singing, dancing and drinking the traditional "boukha" brandy made from dates or figs.
At poolside at a posh Djerba hotel, some pilgrims reveled in the festivities — and brushed off any concerns.
Emile Arki, a 63-year-old businessman who splits his time between Paris and California, said all too often "what's happening in Tunisia is exaggerated with an alarmist tone ... We were well greeted at the airport. The people are smiling. I don't see why anybody should be afraid."
The religious affairs minister sent an adviser to "congratulate our Jewish brothers during their festival," and the tourism minister was expected on Sunday.