Hajj 2024: Thousands prepare for holy pilgrimage in non-regime held northern Syria

6 min read
11 June, 2024

Not long ago, northern Syria's residents breathed a collective sigh of relief as it became clear arrangements for Hajj would remain in the hands of the Syrian-opposition affiliated Committee for Hajj and Umrah.

Now thousands are getting ready to set off to fulfil this sacred and spiritual obligation.

Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and is an obligatory duty of every Muslim of sound mind who has the means.

Many were uneasy that the pilgrimage could become effectively barred to those residing in non-regime-held areas of Syria after diplomatic relations were restored between Saudi Arabia and the Assad regime last year.

Those in these areas feared this development could lead to the responsibility for administering Hajj and Umrah arrangements being reassigned to the regime, after being administered by the Syrian Committee for Hajj and Umrah, under the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, since 2013.

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However, the Syrian Committee for Hajj and Umrah have successfully retained control after Saudi studies showed many Syrians would refuse to travel to Damascus, the regime's headquarters.

Samia al-Bakru, 65, says her feelings are "indescribable" after her application to go on the Hajj pilgrimage this year was approved, meaning she will finally be able to visit the sacred places she's always dreamed of visiting.

Despite the steep increase in registration fees compared with previous years — currently, the fee per pilgrim is around $6,000 — her joy is undimmed. The fee will pay for everything: securing the passport, the trip expenses, food, transport, and accommodation from the moment they set off until they return.

Samia, from Idlib city, said to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition, that she had been worried she would be denied the chance to go on Hajj since Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime in April 2023, but now her mind has been put at rest.

Regarding the required documents for the registration process, Samia said applicants needed a Syrian passport which was valid until the end of the year. Like others, she had difficulty getting hold of it as passports can only be applied for from regime institutions – which are in regime areas she was afraid to travel to.

Therefore, she was forced to go to a local broker to facilitate the transaction; she got her passport, but at double the usual fee.

To complete her application she also needed two passport photos, to fill in a group enrollment form, and a copy of a signed contract form stating the group she would be going with.

Woman walks past a clock tower in Idlib
3,000 pilgrims from northern Syria will travel to perform the Hajj this year [Hadia Al Mansour/TNA]

Those wishing to register to take part in the Hajj pilgrimage must go to the Committee's offices which are situated in Bab al-Hawa (Idlib district), Bab al-Salameh (Aleppo district), as well as in offices in the Turkish cities Reyhanli, Gaziantep and Istanbul.

Numerous conditions have been set for those wishing to apply, including age restrictions for the pilgrims — which prioritise older individuals — and prohibitions on those who have previously gone through this route.

Family applications are limited to include four individuals.  

While Samia is over the moon to have been selected among the 3,000 pilgrims from northern Syria who will be travelling to perform the Hajj this year, 58-year-old Nizar Hallaq was disappointed once again in his attempt to perform the Hajj.

Though he has tried repeatedly over the years, he has been unsuccessful until now, due to the criteria set by the Committee, which prioritises older ages.

With two teary eyes which express his longing to visit the holy sites, Nizar says resignedly that he was not destined to travel and perform the Hajj this year, but he still hopes to go next year.

Nizar, who lives in a displacement camp in Jindires, in Aleppo district, says going on Hajj will be the trip of his lifetime.

Samer Birqdar, who heads the Committee, said it was agreed with Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj and Umrah that the Syrian Committee would be granted 5,200 Hajj places, instead of 7,700 — like last year.

These places would be distributed between northern Syria which would be allocated 3,000 places, Turkey (2,000), Erbil (100) and Qatar (100).

Hajj pilgrims setting off on their journeys from northern Syria and southern Turkey would travel from Gaziantep airport; those from Istanbul and nearby would go from Istanbul airport; those from Erbil from Erbil airport, and those from Qatar from Doha airport.

Birqdar says that because the agreement was so late this year regarding the Hajj conditions with the relevant Saudi officials, the Committee had minimised its procedures as the registration had only been open for ten days in the end. 

Last year, those born up until 1960 were prioritised for acceptance, says Birqdar, but this time "we extended the date-of-birth to 1962 to complement the numbers".

Those accepted had to go to one of the Committee offices and agree on the group they wanted to perform the Hajj with, hand over their passport and pay.

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"We raced to complete the procedures and to rent accommodation in Mecca and Medina and draft the contracts for the accommodation, transport, and provisions," says Birqdar.

Then, agreements were finalised with the airlines who would be transporting the pilgrims, he adds, ​​pointing out that the dates of travel will start at the end of May and will continue until June 12.

Birqdar explained that the main challenge this year in organising the pilgrimage was the lack of a national carrier for those in northern Syria, and consequent delays in securing a deal with the airlines involved. In the end, they were given the leftover slots in their schedules.

Other challenges were the short duration of the journeys (22-34 days), as well as those generated by having to transit through third countries, which created various obstacles and needed extra facilitation from the various authorities.

Omar Araj, head of the Hajj and Umrah Committee's Bab al-Hawa office, explained that in the past it has been customary for around 5,000-6,000 pilgrims to depart annually from the Bab al-Hawa border office, according to the agreed-upon quota.

However, this year, it was decided by the Saudi Ministry at a late stage that only around 3,000 places would be allocated to Hajj pilgrims coming from northern Syria, including those from Idlib and northern Aleppo.

In Araj's view, one positive development this season is that prior coordination has been done with the administration of the Turkish crossing to ensure there are no issues with the pilgrims' documentation.

The idea was that any issues could be resolved before the travel date, which would hopefully ensure a smooth trip for those travelling.

He confirmed that the pilgrims would begin entering Turkey starting on May 29 and that the first Hajj flights would be departing that day "with God's help".

After the start of the first Hajj trips on June 1, more than 20 pilgrims have been returned to northern Syria and been prevented from performing Hajj this year on the pretext that their passports were forged, even though they were registered with the Hajj and Umrah Committee.

This has sparked controversy amid the absence of an official response, and the fact that no solutions were offered to address the sensitive and critical issue.

The Hajj Committee has been criticised for not having put in place any mechanisms to examine passports before the trip to ensure they are valid and not forged.

Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-AwsatAl-MonitorSyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine

Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko