Saturday, May 26, 2012

Jewish pilgrims gather in Morocco, while avoiding Tunisia

As reported by Agence France-Presse, May 13, 2012:

Thousands of Jews from Morocco, Israel and other parts of the world have over the past week carried out an annual pilgrimage to the Islamic nation to honor celebrated rabbis.

Morocco may not be the likeliest of Jewish pilgrim destinations, but the north African nation has for centuries had a vibrant Jewish population and some 1,200 of the faith's pious ancestors are buried in cemeteries here.

In recent days, about 5,000 pilgrims have gathered to pray for peace at sanctuaries and gravesites.

Perhaps the most famous of these burial grounds is that of Amran Ben Diwan, a venerated rabbi who was interred 250 years ago in the mountains of Ouazzane, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of the capital Rabat.

Ben Diwan's tomb, nestled in a Jewish cemetery among acres of olive trees, was placed under police guard and only people who had been authorized by Morocco's Jewish community were allowed access.

The pilgrimage will finish Saturday, following five days of prayers and celebration, with pilgrims hurling candles into a large fire by Ben Diwan's tomb.

Morocco's Jewish population dwindled dramatically with the creation of Israel and now only a few thousand remain.

Tunisia has a small Jewish population too, and a famous synagogue there in 2002 was the target of an Al-Qaeda claimed suicide attack that killed 21 people, most of them German tourists.

Many pilgrims have since then given Tunisia a wide berth.
As reported by Reuters, May 14, 2012:

Security concerns and threats from some Salafi Islamists kept thousands of Jewish pilgrims away from the annual Lag B'Omer celebration on the Tunisian island of Djerba this week.

No more than 500 pilgrims attended the religious festival celebrated a month after Passover at one of Africa’s oldest synagogues on Wednesday and Thursday – an event that used to attract thousands of visitors.

Numbers have plummeted since the overthrow of authoritarian secular leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in a popular uprising in January last year, leading to months of political uncertainty, and the rise to power in October of an Islamist-led government.

Israel issued a travel advisory urging its citizens ahead of the festival to “avoid” visits to Tunisia this year, citing information suggesting they might come under attack.

Last year just 100 took part because pilgrims were reluctant to wade into the charged political environment of the Arab Spring, and organizers cancelled traditional celebrations because of security concerns.

This year, the ceremonies – which mark the deaths of ancient Jewish clerics, including a second-century mystic – went ahead amid tight security with police and soldiers lining the streets.

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