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Jewish candidate for Muslim party breaks barriers in Tunisia

Issued: 2018-03-23

In this photo dated Fed. 28, 2018, candidate with the Ennahdha party in May municipal elections, Simon Slama, poses in his sewing machine repair shop in Monastir, Tunisia. Slama and his family are the only Jews left in the Tunisian city of Monastir, once home to a thriving Jewish community. But instead of joining the exodus, he is running for office _ as a candidate of Tunisia's Islamist party. (AP Photo/Mehdi Arem)

In this photo dated Fed. 28, 2018, candidate with the Ennahdha party in May municipal elections, Simon Slama, poses in his sewing machine repair shop in Monastir, Tunisia. Slama and his family are the only Jews left in the Tunisian city of Monastir, once home to a thriving Jewish community. But instead of joining the exodus, he is running for office _ as a candidate of Tunisia's Islamist party. (AP Photo/Mehdi Arem)

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Simon Slama and his family are the only Jews left in the Tunisian city of Monastir, once home to a thriving Jewish community. But instead of joining the exodus, he is running for office — as a candidate of Tunisia's Islamist party.

Slama's candidacy with the Ennahdha party in May municipal elections is causing a sensation in this overwhelmingly Muslim country, and some controversy.

Critics see it as a calculated tactic by Ennahdha to regain power and to restore its reputation among Western allies like the United States. Others however see it as an example of Tunisia's long-standing traditions of tolerance.

A sewing machine salesman and repairman, 56-year-old Slama says he just wants to serve his country and the city where he was born, suffering from economic difficulties and social tensions.

"I chose Ennahdha because I found that because of the crisis the country is going through, everyone is turning toward this party," he told The Associated Press in his workshop.

"I see no difference between the Islamic and Judaic religions. We are all one family and we are all Tunisian citizens and we should go hand in hand to build the Tunisia of tomorrow," he said.

Slama returned to Monastir, on the Mediterranean coast about 170 kilometers (105 miles) south of the capital, Tunis, after studying in the French city of Strasbourg even as other Jewish families left because "we love the city and it has the spirit of my ancestors."

Tunisia is home to an estimated 1,500 Jews nationwide. Monastir "used to have 520 Jewish families. Today mine is the only one left," Slama said.

He wants to enter public service because he sees towns and cities "as essential in the evolution of society."

Tunisia is holding its first municipal elections since the 2011 revolution that overthrew a long-time autocrat and unleashed uprisings across the Arab world. Tunisia is the only country to emerge with a new and carefully constructed democracy, though the going has been rough.

Ennahdha, banned under the old regime, was victorious in the first post-revolution elections but had to abandon power in 2013 amid a political crisis after the assassination of two opposition politicians and a rise in Islamic fundamentalism.

The party leadership wants it to come out on top in the municipal vote, considered a springboard for legislative and presidential elections next year.

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