What is the Djerba pilgrimage and what does the Ghriba synagogue mean to Tunisia's Jews?

The shooting at the busy pilgrimage site was not the first such incident in Djerba after Al Qaeda killed 21 people there in 2002

Jewish worshippers arrive at the Ghriba synagogue during the annual pilgrimage in Djerba in May last year. Reuters
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Five people, including two civilians, were killed on Tuesday night in an attack on a synagogue on Djerba island in Tunisia.

The attack coincided with the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the island's Ghriba synagogue.

Here's what you need to know about the holy event that turned to tragedy.

What is the Djerba pilgrimage?

The annual pilgrimage to Africa's oldest synagogue regularly draws hundreds of Jews from Europe, the US and Israel to Djerba, a major holiday resort off southern Tunisia, about 500km from the capital, Tunis.

More than 5,000 Jewish pilgrims, mostly from abroad, participated in this year’s pilgrimage. The event takes place around Lag BaOmer, on the 33rd day of the Jewish festival of Passover, which celebrates the Israelites' escape from slavery in Egypt.

The annual pilgrimage is also attended by locals, of whom about 1,000 are Jewish, but also by Jews of Tunisian origin who come back to their ancestors’ place of birth in search of their roots.

The pilgrimage over the years has been an opportunity to celebrate the peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews in the community.

Jews have lived in Tunisia since Roman times.

What is special about the Ghriba synagogue?

The Ghriba synagogue is one of a kind in North Africa, as it is frequented jointly by Jewish and Muslim worshippers.

Shared places of worship are not a strange phenomenon to the Maghreb region specifically, but the practice has decreased over the years, starting in the mid-20th century after the gradual migration of Jews to Europe and Israel.

In Djerba, however, the tradition has persisted, because the Tunisian Jewish community is vividly present in the country’s culture today.

Has the pilgrimage been disrupted before?

A 2002 terrorist attack caused pilgrim numbers dip significantly.

An Al Qaeda suicide attacker rammed a vehicle laden with propane into the Djerba synagogue, causing an explosion that killed 21 people.

The religious ritual was also interrupted but resumed last year after a two-year hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Updated: May 10, 2023, 2:21 PM