Syrian Hajj: Sovereign issue out of regime’s control
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Enab Baladi – Dia Odeh | Murad Abdul Jalil
On September 17, 2012, while the Islamic countries were preparing the lists of names of their citizens wishing to perform the duty of Hajj, the Syrian regime announced through its official news agency (SANA) the suspension of the Hajj procedures, “because the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah did not sign the Hajj agreement on time, despite the Supreme Hajj Committee’s preparation of all the required procedures for the season.”
SANA quoted at the time the Supreme Hajj Committee in Syria, which includes the ministries of Awqaf, Interior, Health, Tourism and Transport, as saying: “Although the Committee has prepared all the required procedures for the Hajj season of 1433 Hijri / 2012 AD, the current Hajj season is suspended because the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia did not sign the agreement on the scheduled time, as used to be the case every year.”
This was not surprising. It came six months after Riyadh’s closure of its embassy in Damascus in March 2012 and withdrawal of its diplomats, following the escalation of the Syrian demonstrations against the Syrian regime at that time, the regime confronted protestors with force and weapons after the deployment of the Syrian army and officers of the security branches in the civilian neighborhoods.
Since then, there has been no work for the Syrian regime’s Supreme Hajj Committee, and the matter has been transferred to a similar committee, but affiliated to the opposition that was represented by the Syrian opposition coalition, which received the whole file on May 1, 2013. This has been perceived as a political blow to the Syrian regime, considering that the Hajj file is “sovereign” but still out of its administrative authority to this day.
In this article, Enab Baladi discusses the Syrian regime’s way of dealing with the file that it has lost and the mechanism that the Syrian opposition has followed after receiving it, especially since it had no prior experience of managing it, whether in terms of dealing with Saudi Arabia as a state or in regard to its own procedures that vary from one year to another.
Emphasis on “politicization”
The Syrian regime has followed the same pattern since its loss of the Hajj file. Each year, it has been accusing Saudi Arabia of depriving Syrians of performing the Hajj. It has been claiming that the requirement to perform the Hajj has not been “realized” because of the politicization of the Hajj by Riyadh, although the Syrian opposition has worked on choosing the names of pilgrims from both the regime and opposition areas, as a step that would keep the Hajj away from politicization and avoid depriving any Syrian from performing it.
The surprising thing about the Syrian regime’s reports and statements, regarding the withdrawal of the file over the past eight years, is the emphasis on the “politicization,” apart from the importance of the Hajj file as a religious ritual for Syrians. This has largely been emphasized in the recent statements of the Minister of Awqaf, Mohammed Abdul Sattar, who stressed in an interview with Russia Today (RT) website in March 2019, that “the Saudi authorities’ prevention of Syrians” from performing the Hajj is a “political decision,” and “a religious, moral and international crime.” He pointed out that the Syrian Ministries of Awqaf and Foreign Affairs “have made all efforts and sent several letters, but unfortunately, neither the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), nor the Muslim World League, the Arab League, (…) or any other side have taken any action about this.
Based on the official version of the regime, it is clear that Riyadh has worked on politicizing the file in the Syrian situation. Keeping the file in the hands of the opposition is evidence of Riyadh’s recognition of this party as a representative of Syrians, away from the Syrian regime, which is considered “illegitimate.” In case the file returns to the regime’s control in the upcoming years, the move will give an indication of Riyadh’s change of policy, after years of diplomatic break between the two sides.
With the passage of years, perhaps the most prominent and most sensitive stage the file has been through is in 2019. The signing of contracts with the Syrian opposition came at a time when some Arab countries have started to restore relations with the Syrian regime, including the UAE and Bahrain At the same time, attention has been directed towards Riyadh, which has not yet changed its policy. With the signing of agreements with the opposition, Riyadh has given a clear position on its unwillingness to restore relations with the Syrian regime at the current time.
President of the Syrian National Coalition, Abdul Rahman Mustafa, stated that the Coalition has been managing the file of Hajj through the Syrian Supreme Hajj Committee for seven years as a “representative of the Syrian people.” It has been coordinating its work with the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia.
Mustafa added in an interview with Enab Baladi that services and opportunities are provided to all Syrians who can perform this duty without exception or discrimination.
Riyadh deals with the Syrian Coalition like any other country, according to Mustafa He explained that this is done in a professional and organized way, and in accordance with the conditions followed with all countries and missions, even the allowed proportion of Syrians follows the terms and laws, and complies with the standards adopted by Saudi Arabia. He considered that “there are no pressures or concerns about the continuation of these services and cooperation.”
The Syrian oppositionist, Ayman al-Asami, media spokesperson for the opposition delegation to Astana, considered that the Hajj file is one of the most important files in the religious affairs of Syria. Once it is taken away from the Syrian regime, it is an underestimation of its sovereignty, and “a recognition that the opposition is a representative of the Syrian people at least in this issue.”
Al-Asami said in an interview with Enab Baladi that the Hajj is not only a service issue but also a political issue related to the recognition of the opposition as a representative of the Syrian people and undermines the Syrian regime’s non-existent sovereignty, especially as this regime has only some files that it considers “sovereign.”
According to the Syrian oppositionist, the Hajj file is currently being managed by “the internationally recognized Syrian Coalition.” This has a great political significance, and since this file is specifically related to Saudi Arabia, which approves it, this shows that the kingdom still holds a hostile position to the Syrian regime and in accord with the Syrian opposition.
On the other hand, al-Asami considered that the Saudi position shall change once the file is transferred from the opposition’s hands in favor of the regime. “This file is subject to no change, but pressure shall be exercised on the regime through it.”
Despite the politicization of this file, al-Asami believes Hajj to be the right of Syrians, and the Syrian regime to be the one that worked to politicize it before transferring the file to the opposition. He highlighted that “the opposition is able to manage this file and fulfill this duty more than the Syrian regime, whose remaining sovereign files are being controlled by Russia and Iran.”
The Syrian oppositionist stressed that since it has been responsible for the Hajj file, the Syrian opposition did not adopt a discriminatory attitude toward Syrians, whether living in the regime or its held areas. The opposition did not politicize the file, for the name selection process covered all the areas. It has also included around 200 names within KSA 2018 Hajj Grant, 70 of them belong to regime held areas and others from North Syria and other asylum countries.
Restricted to those who can bypass intelligence
The Syrian regime’s position and statements were not only limited to its reaction toward losing control over the Hajj file in the past years. It also took several security measures allowing the Syrians in regime-held areas, seeking to perform Hajj, to register their names at the Syrian Supreme Hajj Committee offices affiliated to the Syrian opposition.
While Hajj was restricted to those who can afford enough money, after 2013, even those who can afford it have to review military intelligence branch 230 or the so-called “Palestine Branch.” Seeking to perform Hajj is daring to tell an officer of the Syrian regime: “I want to go to Mecca with the Syrian Supreme Hajj Committee affiliated to the National Coalition, your opponent.”
In 2017, Enab Baladi interviewed one of the pilgrims who reported that the Palestine Branch in Damascus summoned Syrian pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia after entering Syrian territory through Syrian-Lebanese border.
The pilgrim, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that all the returning pilgrims were summoned to the Branch while they were heading to Syria through the Lebanese border without specifying the reasons. He quoted security forces describing this as “routine security procedures, during which every pilgrim is inquired about procedures and details of the travel.”
Before the Syrian pilgrims left to Saudi Arabia in 2017, rumors about an internal circular sent to all the branches of the Immigration and Passports Department signed by its Director, Major General Naji al-Nameer.
According to the circular, “Information confirmed that a number of Hajj and Umrah offices in Lebanon have secured visas for a number of Syrians to Saudi Arabia through its embassies to perform Hajj under the auspices of the Syrian opposition Coalition.” The circular also called to prevent Syrian citizens having passports and visas to Saudi Arabia from leaving Qatar, and allow them only after reviewing Branch 230 (Palestine Branch).”
According to the head of the National Coalition, the Syrian regime “seeks by all means to create chaos at the level of every file, and no wonder it is trying to disrupt the work of the Committee,” noting that the opposition is proceeding with “a strong position.”
The National Coalition’s political balances hindering the Committee’s work
On the other hand, managing the file was not that easy for the Syrian opposition because of the Coalition’s attempt to sabotage the files, whose success can contribute in alleviating the suffering of Syrians in the countries of asylum. The Coalition was mainly involved in the passport file and dominating the Committee and interfering in its work and management.
The file was assigned to the Syrian opposition at the end of 2012 when Sham Scholars Association started drafting the “Hajj Project” at its headquarters in Cairo, which was then presented by Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib. It was then approved by Saudi Arabia in the 2013 season. Afterwards, the Syrian Supreme Hajj Committee was established as a non-profit service institution that is administratively independent, according to the official website of the National Coalition.
In spite of the independence of the Committee, some of the Coalition officials tried during the past years to intervene in its work and to cover the expenses of the Coalition through the funds of the Syrian pilgrims, according to a source knowledgeable about the relationship between the Coalition and the Hajj Committee. The same source told Enab Baladi that a number of people at the Coalition’s political body refused such attempt, after hot debates, calling for sustaining the independence of the Committee’s work.
The Coalition appoints a “Supreme Hajj Committee,” which consists of several people, previously chaired by the Secretary-General of the Coalition, Nazir Hakim. However, Abdul Rahman Mustafa is now occupying the position of the head of the Coalition and Supreme Hajj Committee.
The source pointed out that the criteria for selecting the management and mechanism of work in addition to characterization and functions are put into question. He noted that the selection of members has been subject to political balances within the Coalition and that this senior administration started to interfere in the administrative body of the Commission and its work.
For his part, the director of the Information Office affiliated to the Hajj Committee, Abdel Rahman Nahlawi, said that the Hajj is a huge file this year that requires taking care of 22,500 Syrian pilgrims distributed among several countries. The working staff is also subject to media and security pressure exerted by the regime, in addition to fulfilling their duties, meeting pilgrims’ needs and dealing with the parties to the Coalition and the balance between them. The staff has to bear the change the way they deal with the Coalition after each change occurring at the level of the Supreme Committee members. The Committee is formed by the Coalition and the names are selected according to political balances between the parties. In addition, the staff has to deal with the pressures of the factions in liberated North Syria and balances between them, as well as the Syrian Islamic Council, taking into account balances between its parties.
Supervisory Committee due to financial corruption charges
The Syrian National Coalition has appointed a body to oversee the Hajj Committee, consisting of four members and headed by Safwan al-Jandali, along with three others (media, administrative and legal specialists). These members have been appointed by the Coalition’s president and the Constituent Assembly.
The body was formed to audit financial details attributed to the Hajj Committee, after accusing some members of the Coalition, who have been appointed to supervise the Committee’s financial department, of corruption, according to Enab Baladi’s source. However, the subsequent financial audit proved that there is no solid evidence to support such accusations.
Al-Jandali considered that the appointment of the supervision body to monitor the work of the Hajj Committee is aimed to provide better access to services for the Syrian pilgrims.
He told Enab Baladi that the body’s mission is to oversee the contracts signed with airline companies, the criterion of choosing the pilgrims and following-up financial matters, in addition to monitoring the work of the Hajj Committee. He added that the newly appointed body has no authority over the Hajj Committee and cannot interfere in its activities, but it rather seeks mutual cooperation in order to improve Hajj services by suggesting recommendations on financial matters or contracts, which will be discussed at regular monthly meetings. Thus, the supervision body is meant to assist the Hajj Committee in solving problems and complaints received from the co-chairs’ part.
Hajj: From reproach to honoring
The Hajj Committee is trying to upgrade the quality of Syrian Hajj services and improve its image among Islamic countries and Saudi Arabia, through appointing youthful staff chosen based on their qualifications, while avoiding all forms of favoritism in this regard. On the other hand, the Hajj Committee is designated to reset the compass towards one goal, which is to serve pilgrims, improve the Hajj conditions for Syrian pilgrims and build a national Hajj institution with modern professional standards, insisted the director of the Supreme Hajj Committee, Samer Birqdar.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Birqdar indicated that the Hajj Committee is managed by experienced staff, accompanied by a group of young employees who challenged the notions of corruption and nepotism and were able to establish an exemplary institution. Since its appointment to handle the Hajj file in 2013, the Hajj Committee has attempted to improve the service of Islamic pilgrimage in Syria through implementing several steps. The first one is to fight illegal visa trafficking and to prevent such unlawful activities completely, in addition to improving services and housing in Mecca and Medina, and developing a mechanism to evaluate the pilgrimage groups and link them to the number of pilgrims designated to perform the Hajj in the following year.
The Hajj Committee has recruited a youthful group of employees, who contributed to upgrading the committee’s services thanks to the newly integrated staff’s expertise and education. During six years, the number of workers in the Hajj Committee increased from 35 in the first year to more than 900, mostly young Syrians who did not exceed the age of 34.
Birqdar pointed out that after being exposed to reproach from the part of the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, the Syrian Supreme Hajj Committee was honored by Saudi Arabia in 2016 for its distinguishable development of Syria’s Hajj services to the point of excellence. Thus, the Hajj Committee was chosen as the best provider of Hajj services among other Muslim countries after ranking last in previous years.
Increased administrative pressures
The work of the Hajj Committee was hindered by several challenges, most notably the difficulty of obtaining official permits from the countries involved in the Hajj affair, due to the fact that these states do not consider the Committee as an official representative of Syria, but rather as an institution entrusted by the opposition to facilitate the Hajj journey for Syrian pilgrims. This situation is further complicated as the Syrian pilgrims are scattered in many countries, which multiplies administrative adversities regarding the need to supervise the pilgrims in several locations, communicate with the authorities of the states where the Committee’s offices are located and coordinate with foreign ministries.
Birqdar asserted that the Hajj Committee has faced many difficulties while dealing with the different legislations of the host countries, in addition to the absence of a national airline company, which compels the Committee to sign transportation contracts with foreign airlines. As such, the Hajj Committee is currently cooperating with seven airline companies in countries from which the Syrian pilgrims travel, in order to sign the contracts, fix a flight schedule and monitor flights.
Among other difficulties the Hajj Committee is facing, the deterioration of the Syrian pound is noticeable, which has caused an increase in the Hajj costs to 2,560 dollars last year. This is in addition to the refusal of some countries to open bank accounts in order to conduct financial transactions, as well as the lack or absence of medicines for the medical mission accompanying the pilgrims. On the other hand, the Hajj Committee was unable to open offices to serve the Syrian pilgrims in many countries.
Damaged Tourism offices
Behind the Syrian regime’s attack on Riyadh and the Supreme Hajj Committee, affiliated to the Syrian opposition, accusing it of politicizing the Hajj file and “depriving Syrians of Hajj,” amid the aforementioned security measures, lies the efforts of the tourism offices, operating in the areas under al-Assad’s control, to hinder the activities of the Hajj Committee after suffering severe damages. Hence, these offices have lost the opportunity to undertake the Hajj file, which shifted from Damascus to the hands of the Syrian National Coalition.
Such damage is related to the loss of contracts previously signed with the Ministry of Tourism of the Syrian regime, designated to monopolize the sale of tourism programs and Hajj and Umrah programs after declaring it to duly licensed offices.
According to the Supreme Hajj Committee’s media officer, Abdel Rahman Nahlawi, the interests of the tourism offices have been significantly damaged, because they are unable to sign contracts with the Hajj Committee. Thus, they seek to thwart the Committee’s work, as a step to block it and regain control over the Hajj file through the assistance of the regime, which will revive the trade activities of these offices and grant them annual contracts.
Under the Ministry of Tourism’s decision No. 1111, of May 2009, the Syrian regime permitted the Hajj and Umrah offices to obtain contracts, but only for one Hijri year. Later, Hajj and Umrah programs are advertised in newspapers, magazines and other means of advertising by the tourism office licensed to organize Umrah and Hajj trips.
The owner of the office licensed to work in the field of Hajj and Umrah (certified by the Umrah contract), under the resolution, can advertise Umrah trips to other offices (duly licensed) after applying to the Ministry (competent tourism directorates), which includes the willingness to advertise and the declaration format (duration of the flight, category of hotels, distance to Haram in Mecca, number of persons per room – quality of means of transportation).
In previous statements in March 2017, the former Minister of Tourism, Beshr Yazji, said that most offices operating in the field of Hajj and Umrah closed as a result of the ban on Syrians to perform these religious practices through official channels, which prompted Arab offices to “exploit the need of Syrian believers to perform religious duties, and extort double amounts through fraud,” as he put it.
Working mechanism of the Supreme Hajj Committee
The director of departments of the Supreme Hajj Committee, Nour al-Aaraj, talked about the mechanism and how to manage the work, saying that the Committee was established in 2013 and is the only body authorized to supervise the Syrian pilgrimage file according to official contracts signed each year with the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The offices of the Committee are spread inside Syria within Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam border crossings. In Turkey, there are three offices: in Gaziantep, Al-Rihaniyah and Istanbul, in addition to offices in Beirut, Amman, Cairo and Makkah, and temporary offices in the Gulf States: the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar.
In the countries where it is based, the Committee coordinates its work with the governments of those states, which in turn direct the concerned authorities to facilitate the travel and return of pilgrims to their countries of residence.
The Supreme Committee appoints experts as heads of these offices, who supervise it and oversee the operations of registration, payment, flight and visa services for pilgrims.
The staff of the Commission includes 66 members: members of the Committee and heads of offices and departments, as well as 150 staff members who serve the Syrian pilgrims at peak times.
The main departments of the Supreme Hajj Committee are the Information Department, the Religious Guidance Department, the Secretarial Department, the Human Resources Department, the Finance Department and the Media Department. These departments are headed by specialists who hold university degrees and have experience and competence.
The Committee forms several sub-committees whose members are the staff of the Committee and externally recruited members, such as the Evaluation Committee, the Complaints and Reconciliation Committee, the General Examination Committee, and many other committees that supervise a number of important files; the most important of which are the evaluation of groups file and the file of complaints and reconciliation concerned with the consideration of pilgrims’ complaints and restoring their rights.
The function of these departments and committees before travelling to Mecca and Medina consists of the implementation of plans and strategies put by the Supreme Hajj Committee.
Prior to travelling to Mecca, the Committee also names the heads of the four media, administrative, health and religious missions. Their mission in Mecca and Medina is to supervise the groups that serve the pilgrims.
Nepotism in granting royal grant
Despite the emergence of the Committee from an institution opposed to the regime, the administrators managed to adopt the disassociation policy and deal with all segments of society regardless of the political affiliations of citizens, according to the director of the Supreme Hajj Committee, Samer Birqdar.
Birqdar confirmed that the Committee deals with everyone, without distinguishing between citizens’ political, ethnic or regional affiliation. Registration for Hajj is for all Syrians. First, there is the initial registration, and then the number of people allocated to each country is chosen according to the ratio of registrants proportionate to the allowed number. The oldest are selected, 65% of the Syrian pilgrims, which gives them priority. As for the remaining 35% of the total number granted to the pilgrims of Syria, a lot is drawn between the remaining ages, which opens the room for the pilgrimage of young age groups. The money will then be paid to the Hajj Committee Fund, which will in turn hand it over to groups in batches and oversee the proper Implementation.
The Director of the Information Office, Abdul Rahman al-Nahlawi stressed that despite the affiliation of the Committee to the Coalition, the staff does not belong politically to any bloc forming the Coalition. It also maintained the professionalism of work without going into interests or narrow partisanships, and has been able since the beginning of the work of the Committee to provide a speech that accommodates the entire Syrian people with its sectarian, regional and political differences.
Hajj has become the only place where the components of the Syrian society meet. Children meet with their parents in Mecca after each party leaves a different country.
However, despite the mechanism used in the selection of pilgrims, sometimes it is not free of nepotism and the members of the Coalition’s attempt to impose names of persons to go to the Hajj, especially with regard to the royal grant submitted by Saudi Arabia to the Committee last year. In reality, military figures from northern Aleppo countryside along with political figures affiliated with the Coalition and figures from within Damascus affiliated with the Syrian regime were chosen, according to a source familiar with the selection of names in the Committee.
Saudi Arabia has announced granting a “royal” grant to Syrian pilgrims covering the expenses of 200 people to perform Hajj. The grant involves segments of the Syrian society, including clerics, activists, journalists, personnel of civil defense, human rights organizations and families of martyrs and detainees, without taking into consideration their political affiliations, according to the Secretary-General of the Coalition then, Nazir Hakim.
For his part, Birqdar said that this is the first grant given to the Syrian pilgrims. The Committee was informed on the first of Dhu al-Hijjah at night (the pilgrims had arrived in Saudi Arabia). The Coalition and the Committee had to set the conditions and receive the passports for getting visas within 48 hours.
Birqdar confirmed that the Coalition sent a letter to the cadres and institutions, and general criteria were set for the selection of names, such as the families of the martyrs and the injured and the families of the detainees, in addition to the community leaders. He clarified that the number of people who would benefit from the grant reached 200 distributed to four countries (Beirut 34, Jordan 26, Egypt 20, Turkey 40, and the Syrian north 80), pointing out that according to the request sent by the Royal Authority in Saudi Arabia, the grant must include all segments of the Syrian people.