TUNIS, Tunisia – The annual Jewish pilgrimage to the Tunisian island of Djerba should be maintained as a symbol of the North African nation's openness to the world, Tunisia's tourism minister said Tuesday.
Elyes Fakhfakh's remarks come at a time of uncertainty for Tunisia's small Jewish minority, which has been alarmed by the rise of ultraconservative Islamist groups spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric since the country's longtime dictator was overthrown in January 2011.
Jews have been living in Djerba since 500 B.C. and the synagogue there is believed to be one of the oldest on the African continent. The Jewish community in Tunisia itself numbered 100,000 in 1960s, but most left following the 1967 war Arab-Israeli war.
The tourism minister told journalists on the sidelines of a Mediterranean tourism conference that the pilgrimage, set this year for May 9, should be protected.
"Celebrated for hundreds of years, this religious rite is an achievement that should not change because it illustrates the openness of Tunisia to the world," Fakhfakh said. "It is an achievement of the revolution, which established freedom of worship."
Tunisians overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last year, but in the unrest following his fall, the pilgrimage was canceled. The accession to power of Tunisia's moderate Islamist Ennahda party in October's election has been carefully watched by the country's remaining 1,500 Jews.
Especially worrisome for them was the appearance of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis, some of whom have chanted anti-Semitic slogans at their rallies.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali of the Ennahda party said Monday, however, that "the Jewish pilgrims are welcome to Djerba."
Tunisia's president also held a ceremony at the Djerba mosque on April 11 — marking 10 years since an al-Qaida truck bomb kill 21 people — and described Jews as integral members of the country.
According to travel agent Rene Trabelsi, himself a Djerban Jew residing in France, some 500 Jews, mainly living in France, are expected to attend this year's pilgrimage.
"The success of the pilgrimage could have positive repercussions on Tunisian tourism and attract thousands of visitors in coming seasons," he said.
Tunisia's tourism sector, vital for its struggling economy, was hard hit first by the unrest following its own revolution, then by a civil war in neighboring Libya.
The country saw 4.8 million tourists in 2011, down from 7 million the year before, according to figures given by Fakhfakh at the conference. He predicted 6 million tourists would come this year.