(RNS) — A Tunisian naval officer opened fire on fellow security officers and Jewish pilgrims at a synagogue on the North African island of Djerba on Tuesday evening (May 9), killing two worshippers and two guards. A third security officer, shot by the gunman before he arrived at the synagogue, also died.The shooter was killed by other security officers, according to Tunisian authorities.
The attack came as thousands of Jews had traveled to the island for an annual pilgrimage to the El Ghriba synagogue, the oldest in Africa.
David Benaym, a French journalist covering the pilgrimage, said the shooting broke out just minutes after buses carrying hundreds of pilgrims had departed, though hundreds of locals still remained inside the synagogue.
Pilgrims visit El Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba in May 2023. Photo by David Benaym
“They locked everybody inside, while this police officer, who was not on duty, began to shoot frantically against the crowd,” Benaym told Religion News Service. “At this time, there was a sense of panic inside the synagogue.”
The design of the compound, which kept the shooter down a corridor from the main crowd, and a strong security presence protected the overwhelming majority of the worshippers, according to the journalist.
“That’s why they were able to stop a bigger massacre. Inside the synagogue, it was extremely crowded, extremely packed, and could have been terrible,” Benaym said.
The pilgrimage, which usually coincides with the minor Jewish holiday of Lag B’omer, is a deeply held tradition among the Tunisian Jewish diaspora around the world, and worshippers come from the U.S., France and even Israel, despite the lack of official relations between Tunisia and the Jewish state. Organizers of the event said that more than 5,000 pilgrims came for the event this year, the largest turnout since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two worshippers who were killed, Aviel and Ben Hadad, were cousins, according to The Jerusalem Post. Ben was a French citizen, while Aviel was both Israeli and Tunisian, and living in Djerba.
Present at the pilgrimage the day be …
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