Tight security as Jewish pilgrimage starts in Tunisia

Djerba, Tunisia - An annual Jewish pilgrimage to Africa's oldest synagogue got under way in Tunisia where security forces were deployed heavily to ward off potential jihadist attacks.

Small groups of pilgrims including families with children began arriving in the searing heat at the Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba in southern Tunisia for the Lag BaOmer festival.

Organisers expect up to 2,000 people to visit over two days, despite heightened worries about security following a string of jihadist attacks in the North African country.

Police and soldiers were out in force while a helicopter flew overhead. The island's Jewish district Hara Kbira was cordoned off and visitors were required to undergo searches.

The number of pilgrims visiting the synagogue has fallen sharply since a suicide bombing claimed by Al-Qaeda struck Ghriba just before the 2002 pilgrimage, killing 21 people.

Before then the event attracted as many as 8,000 people.

Believed to have been founded in 586 BC by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the Ghriba synagogue has long been a destination for pilgrims, especially for Jews of Tunisian descent.

Around 1,500 Jews live in Tunisia, down sharply from an estimated 100,000 before the country won independence from France in 1956.

Pilgrims visit the tombs of famous rabbis, pray, light candles and write wishes on eggs.

As usual, many pilgrims prayed for the health or careers of their relatives.

"My wife was seriously ill and, with the grace of God, the year after visiting Ghriba there was a great improvement," said French pilgrim David Slama.

"Since then we have come to offer thanks."

Faced with extremism, it is "our duty to tell everyone that we have to pass on a message of love, peace and respect for others," said religious affairs minister Mohamed Khalil in Djerba.

His tourism counterpart Selma Elloumi Rekik said it was important for Tunisia to hold the pilgrimage.

"You came here for this festive occasion and you confirm that Tunisia will remain a land of friendship and joy despite the challenges of violence and hatred," she said.

Traditionally participants have come from Europe, the United States and Israel, but the number of foreigners attending has diminished considerably since the 2002 bombing.

Tunisia's tourism industry is also reeling from attacks last year claimed by the Islamic State group on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis and a beach resort that killed a total of 60 people, all but one of them foreigners.

Israel this month advised its citizens to avoid visiting the country because of a "high threat level against Jewish targets".

Last year's Lag BaOmer passed without incident, despite a similar warning from Israel.