TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisia's president reassured his nation's Jews of their place in society Wednesday in a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of an al-Qaida truck bomb at a synagogue on the island of Djerba that killed 21 people.
President Moncef Marzouki flew to the island accompanied by Tunisia's grand rabbi, Haim Bitan, to lay a wreath and observe a moment of silence to remember the victims of the truck bombing, which included 14 German and two French tourists. The ambassadors of France and Germany attended, along with the families of the victims.
"All forms of discrimination against Jews, assaults on their lives, possessions or religion are forbidden," he said in a speech inside the synagogue, as he unveiled a plaque. "Tunisian Jews are an integral part of our people and they share all the rights and duties. Whoever violates their rights, attacks all Tunisians."
The speech comes at a time when Tunisia's small, 1,500-strong Jewish community is facing pressure from ultraconservative Muslim groups, after an uprising last year overthrew Tunisia's decades-old secular dictatorship.
At a demonstration of Salafi activists on March 25 calling for the implementation of Islamic law, a Muslim religious leader chanted slogans to "prepare for the fight against the Jews," prompting the leader of the Jewish community, Roger Bismuth, to file a lawsuit against him.
"This trip is a message of solidarity and respect for the Jewish community of Tunisia whose members are considered full citizens," Adnan Mancer, the spokesman for the president, told The Associated Press.
He said Marzouki, a prominent human rights campaigner against the old dictatorship, is "saying he is a president for all Tunisians, Muslims, Christians and Jews."
The Israeli government, which called for the country's remaining Jews to emigrate last December, welcomed Marzouki's move as a positive sign.
"It can signal a renewal of the pact between the new democratic government and the Jewish community," said an official with the Foreign Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. The official said a member of the ruling Islamist party should have attended the ceremony.
The moderate Islamist Ennahda dominated October's elections and leads a coalition with two secular parties, including Marzouki's. Ennahda condemned the anti-Semitic chants by Salafists at the time.
Perez Trabelsi, the head of the Jewish community on the island of Djerba, where most of Tunisia's Jews live, said the president's move "encourages the rapprochement between Tunisia's Muslims and Jews."
For his part, Bismuth described the move as a "positive symbolic gesture by the president" that should stimulate tourism, which he said was hard hit by publicity over the anti-Semitic slogans.
Rene Trabelsi, a Jew of Tunisian origin residing in Paris, said in a telephone interview that many Tunisian Jews living in France had planned to visit Djerba for Passover but had canceled their trips after hearing the media reports.
"They were traumatized by these dangerous statements which came after the drama of Toulouse," he said, referring to the shootings of four Jews, including three children, in France by an al-Qaida sympathizer. He said Marzouki's move could restart Jewish tourism, especially for next month's pilgrimage to Djerba.
Jews are believed to have lived in Djerba for the past 2,500 years and the community in Tunisia itself numbered 100,000 in 1960s. Most left following the 1967 war between Israel and Arab countries.
The Djerba synagogue is a pilgrimage site for North African Jews a month after the holiday of Passover, which will fall on May 9 and 10 this year.
According to Rafram Chaddad, an Israeli of Tunisian origin, Jews have long felt comfortable in Tunisia.
He said many Jews of Tunisian origin who moved to France in the past 20 years own homes in Tunis and visit in the summer and that Israeli tour operators used to send groups of Tunisian-born Israelis to the country before the revolution.
Associated Press writer Daniel Estrin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.