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Syrians fly for pilgrimage as ties thaw with Saudi Arabia

June 6, 2024 at 1:28 pm

Muslims from all over the world worship and circumambulate around the Kaaba after fulfilling the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on 06 June 2024 [Lokman Akkaya/Anadolu Agency]

For the first time in more than a decade, thousands of Syrians are travelling directly from government-held parts of their country to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage, a signal of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s gradual reintegration into the Arab fold, Reuters has reported.

After Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011, Saudi Arabia cut ties with Assad and backed figures opposed to him. This support included granting Syria’s opposition thousands of Hajj visas to be distributed among Syrian pilgrims in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.

Riyadh re-established ties with Assad last year, and in May appointed its first envoy to Syria since the rift. Direct flights also resumed, allowing pilgrims to head straight from Damascus to Jeddah to perform the Hajj, a religious duty for all Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime if they are able to afford it.

One such pilgrim is Berlanta Dimashqiya, an 84-year-old resident of Damascus. “I’m extremely happy,” she said. “I still can’t believe that I will participate in Hajj.”

While some Syrians living in government-held areas had been able to attend the Hajj in past years by taking flights with layovers, such long trips had proved too strenuous for many elderly people.

Huda Abu Sha’ar said that she had felt a “big joy” when she heard that direct flights had restarted. She had carefully prepared her bag, including a sheet of paper with a long list of prayers that her relatives has asked her to make on their behalf in the holy city of Makkah.

At least 7,000 Syrians have already flown to Saudi Arabia since the flights resumed, explained Bassem Mansour, the director-general of the Syrian Civil Aviation authority. “Our equipment and airports are safe, our airstrips are good, and our planes are good,” he told Reuters.

Damascus International Airport has been hit by Israeli air strikes repeatedly in recent years, part of the occupation state’s campaign against Syrian installations allegedly used by Iran for weapons transfers.

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