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Returned Libyan Jew says driven from Tripoli synagogue

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - A Libyan Jew who returned to the country in hopes of resurrecting its Jewish community after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi said Monday that armed men had forced him from the Tripoli synagogue which he had hoped to restore.

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David Gerbi, who went aged 12 into exile in Italy after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war spurred attacks on Tripoli Jews, told reporters he was trying to resume cleaning at the long-shuttered synagogue, only to find its door locked. Residents of the area then warned him to flee, he said.

A man came and said, ‘You need to stop now. There are men coming with guns and you will be killed,’” said Gerbi, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned “I Love Libya” and holding a scroll inscribed with “Yahweh,” the Hebrew word for God.

A companion of Gerbi’s said four men armed with rifles had come to the synagogue as he tried to enter.

A local military official denied there was any confrontation at the synagogue.

“He left with his own will and his departure was even filmed. Everything is documented, thank God,” said Sheikh Jamal al-Ghazzawi, head of the military council in Tripoli’s old city, who said no one had threatened Gerbi.

“We came here so no one will react and use violence against him. We made sure everything was in a polite and safe way. He left under our protection and journalists were around. When he left he made things up about us.”

Gerbi, who cultivated ties with Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) during the uprising that toppled Gaddafi, said the incident would force the NTC to confront anti-Jewish prejudice following its pledges to build a democratic state that respects civil and human rights.

“It needs to be clear if it’s a racist country or a free country,” he said. “The door has been closed again ... it’s happened to so many generations. It’s a symbolic act.”

Gerbi, a psychotherapist in his late 50s, has sought a position representing exiled Jews in the NTC, which is struggling to form a transitional government, and hopes to secure the return of property confiscated from Libyan Jews, some 38,000 who were forced out in 1969.

Asked about Gerbi’s bid, NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil said: “This is a premature issue. We have not decided on that yet. The future attitude in Libya is citizenship...whoever has Libyan nationality would enjoy the rights provided to Libyans provided he doesn’t have another nationality.”

Gerbi said he planned to visit a Jewish cemetery, despite the possibility that he could be at risk in Tripoli.

“I am sorry for the people who love me,” he said, weeping. “But I will not give up.”

Additional reporting by Emad Omar in Benghazi; Editing by Christian Lowe