OUZZANE (AFP/EJP)---An annual pilgrimage to the gravesides of celebrated rabbis in Morocco was participated in by thousands of Jews from across Morocco, Israel and the rest of the world.
The North African country is regarded for its long-standing rich Jewish history and its cemeteries serve as the resting place for approximately 1,200 leading lights of the religion, such as Amran Ben Diwan, who was buried in Ouzzane, 200 kilometres from Rabat, 250 years ago. His grave is under continuous police guard and can only be visited with prior permissions from the Jewish community.
Five days of prayer and celebration, which ended on Saturday, saw about 5,000 pilgrims gathering at the sacred sanctuaries and gravesites. Morocco was once one of North Africa’s most vibrant Jewish communities, but with the creation of Israel came mass aliyah and now only a few thousand remain.
Unlike neighbouring Tunisia, where a recent annual pilgrimage to Djerba island to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba’Omer attracted controversy, Morocco is seen as comparatively safe.Around 3,000 Jews live in the country, the largest Jewish community in an Arab country.
The Tunisian pilgrimage was in fact cancelled last year, following civil unrest that led to the demise of long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This wasn’t the first time the pilgrimage’s existence had been threatened, as an Al Qaeda claimed attack at the Ghriba synagogue in April 2002 that killed 21 people, dramatically affected attendance figures.
Since the toppling of his regime, there has been a rise of more extremist factions in the country, with devotees of the extremist-Conservative Salafist strand of Islam calling for a traditional Islamic state.