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Despite debate over passports, security fears, Jewish pilgrimage in Tunisia gains strength

  • Tunisia Jewish Pilgrimage-1.jpg

    Jewish pilgrims light candles in the Ghriba synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa more than 2,500 years ago, as they attend the annual Jewish pilgrimage in the resort of Djerba, Tunisia, Friday April 26, 2013. Jews coming from Tunisia, Europe or Israel make their annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue, commemorating the death of Shimon Bar Yohai, a second-century kabbalistic rabbi who authored a famous religious text known as The Zohar. (AP Photo/Aimen Zine) (The Associated Press)

  • Tunisia Jewish Pilgrimage-2.jpg

    A Jewish pilgrim pray at the Ghriba synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa more than 2,500 years ago, as she attends the annual Jewish pilgrimage in the resort of Djerba, Tunisia, Friday April 26, 2013. Jews coming from Tunisia, Europe or Israel make their annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue, commemorating the death of Shimon Bar Yohai, a second-century kabbalistic rabbi who authored a famous religious text known as The Zohar. (AP Photo/Aimen Zine) (The Associated Press)

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    French jew, Bebert Zouili, attends the annual Jewish pilgrimage in the resort of Djerba, Tunisia, in the Ghriba synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa more than 2,500 years ago, Friday April 26, 2013. Jews coming from Tunisia, Europe or Israel make their annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue, commemorating the death of Shimon Bar Yohai, a second-century kabbalistic rabbi who authored a famous religious text known as The Zohar. (AP Photo/Aimen Zine) (The Associated Press)

  • Tunisia Jewish Pilgrimage-4.jpg

    Jewish pilgrims gather at the Ghriba synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa more than 2,500 years ago, to attend the annual Jewish pilgrimage in the resort of Djerba, Tunisia, Friday April 26, 2013. Jews coming from Tunisia, Europe or Israel make their annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue, commemorating the death of Shimon Bar Yohai, a second-century kabbalistic rabbi who authored a famous religious text known as The Zohar. (AP Photo/Aimen Zine) (The Associated Press)

Despite years of security concerns and a harsh debate over Israeli passports, officials say the number of Jewish pilgrims taking part in an annual rite in Tunisia is up dramatically for the first time in years.

Rene Trabelsi, who helps organize the trek to the Ghriba synagogue, Africa's oldest, said 2,000 people took part in the three-day pilgrimage ending Sunday.

The island of Djerba, site of the synagogue, had seen pilgrims in the hundreds each year since Tunisia's 2011 revolution, from a peak of 7,000 in 2010.

This was the first year that Israeli pilgrims have been allowed to use their passports rather than a special document issued by the Tunisian government, prompting an outcry among some lawmakers. Tunisia has no diplomatic relations with Israel.