The war in Syria and crisis in the gulf countries has cast its shadow on the annual Muslim pilgrimage to the holiest city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is being accused of ‘politicising’ the ritual, held deeply sacred by Muslims worldwide.
Saudi annually hosts about 2 million pilgrims, embarking on a journey to be performed at least once in their lifetime to the holiest places in the desert country. The number of Qataris attending Mecca this year is expected to be fewer, even though millions from the faith will be carrying out the journey.
Interestingly, the restrictions do not completely ban the Qatari citizens to perform Hajj, but creates hurdles for hajj organising agencies to make travel and accommodation arrangements for the pilgrims. For instance, the Qatari citizens were told they could enter Saudi from only two airports at Jeddah or Medina. And not only that, they can only enter the country if they travel via Doha.
While both Saudi and Qatar have accused each other of politicising the pilgrimage, Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) has filed a formal complaint with the United Nations (UN) stating that the Saudi measures are in ‘stark violation of international laws and agreements that guarantee the right to worship.’
Previously, during the holy month of Ramadan, the Saudi officials had forced Qataris, visiting the religious sites, to leave their hotel rooms. The travelers couldn’t fly on commercial flights booked from Saudi to Qatar and were forced to use charter flights. The NHRC will lodge a second complaint with UNESCO for this harassment of the Qatari nationals and for considering them as a threat to the Saudi territory.
The travel restrictions come after Saudi and its Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) allies - UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – accused Qatar of “funding terrorism”, which Qatar vehemently denies. The group has severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and attempted to corner it in the region, triggering crisis. Earlier last month, the Saudi-led bloc put forth a list of 13 demands, which included shutting down of Al Jazeera and snapping ties with Muslim Brotherhood, pushing Qatar to the brink.
The allegations of Saudi Arabia “politicising Hajj pilgrimage” also came from Syria on Monday, where the Syrian Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf), which facilitates hajj pilgrimage in the country, termed the Saudi’s measures for its citizens as a “political and financial exploitation”.
The diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Syria also remains cut off since 2012, after anti-Assad insurgency erupted in Syria. To perform Hajj, the Syrians now have to obtain visas from a third country through Syrian High Hajj Committee, which is run by the Saudi-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC), also termed by Syria as “the enemies of the homeland.”