Prayers were held for the first time in decades Monday at a synagogue in Sidon, Lebanon, as American anti-Zionist rabbis visited the site 30 years after the city’s last Jews left.

Two rabbis from the Natorei Karta movement toured the building – once Sidon’s main synagogue – in the area still known as the southern coastal city’s “Jewish quarter.” The building, which still bears Star of David motifs and Hebrew inscriptions, now houses Palestinian refugees from the 1967 Six Day War and their descendants.

The rabbis wore Arab keffiyehs around their necks, and badges on their chest reading in English and Arabic, “A Jew, not a Zionist.”

Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper reported the rabbis expressed hoped the current tenants would “soon return home,” and their pain at the “crimes and sufferings inflicted by the Zionist movement and Israel on Palestinians in and outside Palestine.”

Judaism is one of 18 religious sects officially recognized in Lebanon. The country’s Jewish population peaked at around 20,000 at the turn of the last century, but today numbers only a few dozen – almost all in Beirut.

Sidon’s small Jewish population began to shrink in 1948 when some left for the newborn State of Israel. The city’s Jewish community began dwindling after the 1975 outbreak of Lebanon’s Civil War, and its last members left after the Israeli military invasion seven years later.

“For 40 years we have not seen a rabbi in Sidon. And the last Jewish families left after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, fearing reprisals,” a resident told the AFP news agency, adding that Jews still owned land and property in the city.

Natorei Karta is an ultra- Orthodox sect opposed to Israel’s existence on religious grounds. The group claims its adherents are in the thousands, but it has fewer than 100 members active in anti-Israel activity, mainly in Monsey, New York, Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim quarter and Ramat Beit Shemesh.

AFP reported that one of the rabbis visiting Sidon, Yisroel Dovid Weiss, spoke to his guests about the essential similarity between Judaism and Islam, and said members of both religions had lived together peacefully before the advent of the Zionist movement.

Weiss met later with MP Osama Saad, head of the Popular Nasserist Organization, an Arab nationalist faction dominated by Sunnis. Weiss has participated in a series of high-profile anti-Israel events. In 2001 he joined a Muslim delegation to the UN’s World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in which US and Israeli delegates walked out in protest against what they perceived as the forum’s overriding anti- Israel bias.

Five years later he attended the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust in Iran, where he accused Israelis of using the Holocaust to win sympathy and defended remarks by the country’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for Israel’s elimination.

The Daily Star reported that on his visit to Sidon, Weiss visited the tomb traditionally attributed to Zevulun, the head of one of the biblical 12 tribes of Israel. He also visited the city’s Jewish cemetery, a frequent target of vandalism.

Last week Weiss and another Natorei Karta rabbi participated in a procession of 2,000 Palestinians to Beaufort Castle in southern Lebanon as part of “Land Day” protests against Israeli land policies.

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