Tunisian Jews asked to return by new president

The El Ghriba synagogue

The El Ghriba synagogue

The Tunisian president has extended the hand of friendship to the Jewish community.

The North African country was once home to 100,000 Jews but after independence from France and the Six Day War in Israel many fled, fearful of their safety. The population now stands at around 1,500 Jews and is concentrated on the island of Djerba.

But the country's new leader , President Moncef Marzouki, who took over from deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali earlier this year, said he wanted to rebuild Jewish life in Tunisia.

In a meeting with Grand Rabbi Haim Bittan, he said Tunisian Jews were full citizens and that Tunisian Jews living abroad should be welcomed back.

Tunisian Jews have cautiously welcomed the Arab Spring, balancing hopes for the future with concern about the rise of Islamist parties. In May the annual Lag B'Omer pilgrimage to Djerba's historic El Ghriba synagogue was cancelled because of security fears, while in September a synagogue in the Tunisian city of Sfax was targeted by vandals.

Earlier this month Israel's deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom – who was born in Tunisia – said Tunisian Jews should emigrate to Israel.

Last updated: 11:16am, December 20 2011