Pilgrims Head to Tunisian Synagogue

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DJERBA, Tunisia, April 30, 2002 (AP)¿Hundreds of Jews came to this Tunisian resort island Monday for an annual pilgrimage to a historic synagogue, but the mood was mournful following a terrorist attack that killed 18 people.

Turnout for the two-day festival at the Ghriba synagogue appeared to be far lighter than normal. The Lag B'Omer pilgrimage usually draws thousands of visitors from around the world.

Tunisian Tourism Minister Mondher Zenaidi said from the synagogue that the pilgrimage represents a victory over forces of fanaticism.

``Our Jewish citizens know that the Tunisian state will not allow anyone to attack with impunity the freedom of religion, which is regarded as an inalienable right,'' Zenaidi said.

On April 11, a truck exploded at the entrance of the synagogue, killing 18 people, including 13 German tourists. Last week, the government acknowledged the blast was an attack, carried out by a Tunisian citizen, Nizar Naouar, and an accomplice.

Perez Trabelsi, the synagogue's president, said the explosion was a ``heavy blow'' to Djerba's 1,200 Jews. But, he added, ``no matter how many faithful come, the pilgrimage will take place.''

His son, Rene Trabelsi, a travel agent who lives in Paris, said the attack posed ``a challenge'' to Djerba _ but that he had booked at least two flights full of travelers from France for the pilgrimage.

He acknowledged many people changed their plans following the attacks.

Tunisia once had a thriving Jewish community of 100,000, but there are now only about 2,000 Jews in the North Africa nation _ about half on the island of Djerba.

Ghriba, built in the 1920s, is believed to sit on the site of Africa's oldest synagogue _ one believed to have been built about 2,500 years ago.

According to tradition, the first Jews came to Djerba in biblical times, bringing a stone from the ancient temple of Jerusalem that was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The stone is kept in a grotto at Djerba's synagogue.