Syrian regime to resume organising Hajj trips to Saudi Arabia amid warming ties with Riyadh
The Syrian regime's Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf) is set to resume responsibility for organising Hajj pilgrimages from Syria in coordination with Saudi authorities from next year, in the latest show of warming ties between Riyadh and Damascus.
For the past 10 years, the Syrian opposition has been responsible for organising Hajj from Syria after Saudi Arabia broke off relations with Damascus over Bashar al-Assad's violent suppression of peaceful protests in the early days of the civil war.
“The organisation of Hajj affairs is based on an agreement between the Awqaf ministry and the Saudi Hajj ministry,” Hassan Nasrallah, the Syrian regime's Hajj director, told the Al-Watan newspaper on Wednesday.
He added that the regime will not organise the sacred Islamic pilgrimage this year because the Hajj season will take place only two months after the Saudi and Syrian regimes restored diplomatic relations.
The “Higher Hajj Committee”, affiliated with the Syrian opposition, had been officially in charge of organising pilgrims’ affairs since 2013, after Saudi Arabia withdrew their cooperation with the Assad regime.
Since then pilgrims in regime-controlled areas had to travel to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, or to brokers and tourism offices to make Hajj without the assistance of regime authorities.
Mohammed Rami Martini, the regime tourism minister, has since warned Syrians against using travel agencies.
“When Syrians obtain Hajj visas from outside the country, or through travel agencies, they do so at their own risk - the ministry of tourism cannot step in to help should something go wrong,” Rami Martini told al-Watan.
Flights between Jeddah, Riyadh and Damascus are expected to resume next month. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians live and work in Saudi Arabia.
The renewed cooperation with the regime over religious pilgrimages is the latest sign of normalising ties between Assad and the Gulf states.
Following the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Saudi Arabia gave public backing to the Syrian opposition and fiercely declared its opposition to Assad, accusing him of "war crimes" but restored relations with the regime in March and hosted Assad for the Arab summit in Jeddah earlier this month.