ROME (Reuters) - Rome’s Jewish community, some of whom were forced to leave Libya 40 years ago, are angry over Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s apparent willingness to meet them only on Saturday, the Sabbath day sacred to Jews.
Community leaders also want Gaddafi, who arrives in Rome on Wednesday for his first visit to Italy, to tell them the whereabouts of a Palestinian who was sentenced for a 1982 attack on a Rome synagogue and found asylum in Libya.
“At the very least this shows a lack of sensitivity,” Riccardo Pacifici, president of Rome’s Jewish community, told Reuters. “But it is also a matter of principle. We won’t go as a community unless the day is changed.”
Libyan organizers of the trip have invited the Jews to attend a meeting — along with Italians who were expelled from the country in the early 1970s — planned for Saturday in a tent being set up for Gaddafi in a sprawling Rome park.
The Sabbath, or Shabbat, is a day of rest during which Jews cannot work. Many of Rome’s Jews are observant, including Shalom Tshuva, a Libyan who is a deputy president of Rome’s Jewish community and head of Libyan Jews in Italy.
Pacifici said he did not understand why organizers could not have scheduled the meeting for another day when observant Jews could attend. The community has asked for a change.
“If any Jew goes to the meeting it will be as an individual and not as an official member of the community,” he said.
The Jewish community in the former Italian colony, which traces its origins to Roman times, numbered about 38,000 at the end of World War Two. But it declined steadily after anti-Jewish pogroms in 1945 and 1948.
By the time Israel won the Six-Day War against Arab nations in 1967, the community had dwindled to about 7,000.
Following Israel’s victory, anti-Jewish riots broke out and nearly all Libyan Jews were evacuated to Italy for safety.
“The Libyan government told them they could not protect them. So they had to choose between staying and getting killed or fleeing,” said Vivienne Roumani-Denn, a U.S.-based Libyan Jew and maker of the 2007 documentary film “The Last Jews of Libya.”
After he came to power in 1969, the vehemently anti-Israel Gaddafi confiscated all Jewish property and canceled all debts to Jews. The Jewish community in Libya is now virtually non-existent.
Jews say they want to know if Gaddafi is sincerely interested in compensation to Libyan Jews.
Pacifici said if he meets Gaddafi, he also wants to ask him about Abdel Osama al-Zomar, who was convicted in absentia in Italy for having masterminded the attack on the Rome synagogue.
A two year-old boy was killed and dozens wounded in a machinegun and grenade attack by Palestinian guerrillas as worshippers were leaving the synagogue on the Tiber River.
“We owe this to the memory of the boy and those who were injured, including my father,” Pacifici said.
Al-Zomar was later arrested in Greece but Athens denied an Italian extradition request and instead deported him to Libya.
At the time of the attack, the U.S. government accused Libya of sponsoring terrorism. Tripoli remained on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism until 2006.
Editing by Charles Dick