Syrians who wish to perform the Muslim pilgrimage this year are finding it difficult to leave their violence-stricken country for Mecca.
Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam which should be performed by all Muslims who have the financial and physical capability, at least once in their lifetime.
Prior to the uprising that broke out in the country 19 months ago, Syrian hajj travel agencies charged applicants between $1,000 and $3,000, depending on their age. It costs a Syrian -- 50-years of age or older -- $1,000 to perform the Hajj and $3,000 for anyone under 50 years of age.
There are certified agencies nationwide that in charge of completing the necessary paperwork required for the journey. It usually takes few days for applicants to receive their passports with the required visa.
Syrians who have planned to perform Hajj this year have been turned down by the hajj agencies.
Ahed al-Shamout, 62, a grandma who has performed hajj regularly over the past seven years, said Hajj agencies made it “impossible” for Syrians to go forward with obtaining the visa this year. The cost of the visa climbed to $25,000 before the decision was formally announced by the official Syrian SANA news agency.
On Sept. 18, the government news agency blamed Saudi Arabia for not facilitating this year’s hajj journey for Syrians, a claim the Kingdom has denied.
The report, which was also broadcast by the Syrian TV, stated that Syrian travel agencies took all necessary procedures to ensure that citizens are able to perform the hajj, but that “the relevant ministry in Saudi Arabia didn’t sign the agreement as it does every year.”
Saudi Arabia denied the report and its ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri has said, according to the Riyadh-based Arab News, that haj applications for Syrians were being processed in “record time,” emphasizing “the embassy is working round the clock to finalize Haj procedures for Syrians, and to ensure they proceed to the Holy places smoothly.” The embassy created a special section to implement the Saudi king’s directive so that the process takes three days maximum.
Yet, many Syrians who followed their state media appeared to have been fed disputable information.
Ahmed Sam’an, a Syrian who planned to go to hajj, said people were taken away by “this wave of sanctions” and are no longer able to live a normal life as much as they desire. Sam’an, 39, was able to perform hajj for his first time last year.
“We were welcomed in Saudi Arabia last year,” he said. He explained that he was informed the Saudi government was not allowing Syrians inside the country to perform the hajj for fear of inciting unrest.
According the Saudi Hajj Ministry, the Syrian government is fully responsible for restricting its citizens inside the country from preforming hajj.
“The Syrian government never replied to our messages as the hajj ministry tried to contact them three weeks ago,” said deputy governor of Mecca region, Abdulaziz al-kudary.
He said King Abdullah ordered all embassies in the neighboring countries to provide all Syrians who desire to preform hajj with the appropriate visa.
“We have thousands of Syrians who already made their way to Mecca from Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey,” al-Kudary said.
When asked about the hajj visa fees, al-Kudary said, “there are no visa fees, zero.”
He said overpriced hajj charges inside Syria could be associated with agencies, but nothing was tied with the Saudi embassy or hajj ministry.
Al-Kudary said the Saudi government is “aware of the hardships Syrians are faced with and that the government is trying its best to make it easy for all Syrians to preform hajj this year.”
“We haven’t met our 20,000 annual quota for Syria; the number is still open until the day of hajj.”
The Hajj, an annual Muslim gathering held in Mecca, is the largest human assembly worldwide. On average, 3 million people perform the Hajj every year.