MAKKAH – Gathering from across the war-devastated country, Syrians flew to Makkah for the annual hajj pilgrimage, praying for peace amid rising tensions between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and Riyadh.
“All our friends and relatives in Damascus asked us to make special prayers for them while in the Grand Mosque,” said Safaa, one of the pilgrims, wearing the seamless white cloth all pilgrims must use during hajj.
“God willing, we will pray for them and all of Syria.”
Safaa, 40, is one of the Syrian pilgrims who came to Makkah from government-controlled Damascus with her parents, her sister, her brother and his wife, despite the difficulty of arranging the trip.
Diplomatic ties have been cut between Riyadh and Damascus over the recent war in Syria,
“Saudi Arabia now does not deal with the legitimate government (in Syria) but rather with individuals who are not recognized, and thus the responsibility for protecting these people falls on the Saudi government,” Sheikh Ahmed al-Jazaily, an advisor at Syria’s Islamic Affairs ministry, told Reuters by telephone on Friday, September 9.
With no relations, Syrians seeking to make the hajj need to obtain visas in third countries through a committee controlled by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an anti-Assad opposition body.
Tamam al-Khatib, an SNC official, said Saudi Arabia gave the group 9,000 visas for Syrian pilgrims residing in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.
For Syria, with its pre-war population of 23 million people, that number allowed for Hajj is far less than its usual quota of 1,000 visas per million Muslims, Jazaily said.
All able-bodied Muslims who have the means are expected to make the pilgrimage once in their lifetime.
Whichever side they came from, Syrians on board a flight from Beirut to Mecca made no mention of their differences and said the pilgrimage transcended politics.
Mariam, 60, made the journey from Talfita, an opposition-held village north of the Syrian capital.
“We left the war and suffering and came to hajj. By God … I long to see the Prophet,” she said, as her cousin Khadra gazed at white clouds and the yellow desert below.
“May God give Syria a remission.”