Salam (Peace) Dear Anthony,
Thank you for your question and for contacting Ask About Islam.
I greet you with the Muslim greeting of peace.
The first problem you will encounter in trying to visit the holy city of Makkah is that, as far as I know, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not grant visas for tourism purposes. Non-Muslims visiting the Kingdom usually do so as business travelers or as guests of citizens of that country.
Saudi Arabia does not promote itself as a tourist destination, since you will find there none of the things which most tourists are looking for on a holiday. The holy city of Makkah, as we will discuss later, is not a place for tourism, but for Muslims to bow down in worship to their Creator.
As for the nearest church, as I have explained, you won’t be needing one, since you will most probably not be granted a visa. Any further queries you may have on this issue must be directed to the Ministry of the Interior of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, since their domestic policy does not allow the building of churches within their territory, although they can be found anywhere else in the Muslim world.
If you were to stop off in Egypt or Syria on the way, for example, you would find sizeable Christian communities that have lived side by side with their Muslim neighbors for fourteen centuries.
The first time I visited the holy city of Makkah, I traveled from Egypt to Jeddah and then I took transportation to Makkah itself. On the outskirts of the city there were numerous checkpoints, where visitors were asked to show their passports and proof of their Muslim status.
My own visa showed that I was visiting Saudi Arabia to make a religious visit to Makkah and Madinah. This introduction to my visit only added to the sense of excitement as I approached the sacred precincts of the Kaabah.
There are some who would see this as discriminatory. They would ask why Christians and Jews, for example, are not allowed into Makkah. They would even question the good faith of many Muslims engaging in inter-faith dialogue, suggesting that they cannot be serious about dialogue if they prevent their non-Muslim friends from visiting Makkah.
This is not the case, and I will try to explain why.
I will preface my answer by giving a few examples of my own inter-faith credentials and this might help you to understand that not admitting non-Muslims to Makkah has nothing to do with this.
In December I was in Istanbul for a meeting with some Muslim scholars. Whilst there I took the opportunity to extend a hand of friendship on behalf of Muslims to two leading figures and members of other faiths living in Turkey.
The first meeting was with His All Holiness the Patriarch of Constantinople, spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Greek Orthodox Christians. Our discussion lasted nearly two hours and was both friendly and serious.
The second meeting I had was with the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, leader of Turkey’s com
Some time ago, I was in London, where I met with Anglican clergy at Lambeth Palace and also with Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira and Great Britain.
Recently I returned from the United States, where I had meetings with leaders of the Episcopal and Methodist Churches, as well as a meeting with the General Secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ of the USA.
I hope you can see from this that inter-faith dialogue is right at the top of my own list of priorities as a Muslim. Despite that, though, I can quite happily accede to the idea of not allowing non-Muslims into Makkah.
The best way I can explain it is by way of analogy. I am sure that you have married friends. Perhaps you have been to dinner with them or been out with them for the evening to the theater or the cinema. Maybe you have spent long hours with them discussing many issues.
You will agree with me, though, that there are certain moments in the life of this married couple where it would not be appropriate for you to be present. They need time on their own to be intimate, and these times are not to be shared with others.
In exactly the same way, Muslims can be with their Christian or Jewish friends on many occasions, having fun or talking at great length, but visiting the holy city of Makkah is a time for them to be intimate with Allah alone. It is not a time for their non-Muslim friends to be with them.
Visiting Makkah either as part of Hajj, that once in a lifetime pilgrimage enjoined on all Muslims once in their lifetime, if they are able to make it, or for Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, is a uniquely religious experience. Muslims perform the rituals of Hajj and Umrah because they have been told to do so, in imitation of Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) and his wife Hagar. They circumambulate the Kaabah, just as the angels encircle the throne of God in heaven.
Everyone present at the Kaabah is there for the same reason. Muslims, and especially ladies, can feel relaxed when performing their religious duties there, in the knowledge that they are in the presence of Muslims there for the same reason.
In many societies, Muslims are put under great pressure because of the practice or because of the outward signs of their faith. In Makkah, they are there with fellow Muslims solely for the purpose of worshiping Allah.
Many Muslims weep openly on seeing the Kaabah for the first time. It is truly an intimate moment to be alone with Allah in the midst of your Muslim brothers and sisters.
It is for this reason that tourism has no place in Makkah, nor its environs. I hope that this answer makes sense to you and that it will encourage you to learn even more about Hajj and about Islam itself.
I hope this answers your question. Please keep in touch.