Syrian opposition still holds Hajj file despite signs of normalization between Saudi Arabia and al-Assad regime

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Enab Baladi – Jana al-Issa

Since 2013, the file of Syrian pilgrims has been assigned to the Supreme Hajj Committee of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) after Saudi Arabia withdrew it from the Syrian regime’s Ministry of Endowments as an indication that it did not recognize its legitimacy at the time.

On 19 April, the Hajj Committee announced Saudi Arabia’s conditions to receive 10,186 Syrians for the Hajj pilgrimage.

The announcement was unexpected by some, especially since the Hajj pilgrimage was viewed as an issue of “sovereignty” amid earlier expectations and talks about Saudi Arabia’s near-normalization with the regime, although no official statements confirmed it.

“Wobbly normalization”

The Coalition’s Supreme Hajj Committee took over the entire Hajj pilgrimage file in May 2013, after Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah refused to conclude the usual annual agreement with the regime’s Ministry of Endowments in 2012, months after Riyadh closed its embassy in Damascus and withdrew its diplomats in March 2012 in conjunction with widespread demonstrations across Syria and regime-perpetrated violations.

Despite the Ministry of Endowments’ repeated annual denunciations and objections when assigning the file to the Syrian opposition and the restrictions on pilgrims leaving regime-controlled areas, Saudi Arabia’s decision remained unchanged.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, a researcher at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Bilal Salaymeh stressed that assigning the Hajj pilgrimage file to the opposition rather than to the Syrian regime is undoubtedly a political message confirming the recognition of an entity that represents Syrians in general, noting that it is not related to service aspects or the extent of access to Syrians in or outside Syria.

Salaymeh believes that there are attempts at rapprochement between the Syrian regime and Saudi Arabia, but it is a rapprochement that is taking a “wobbly and unstable” path, even if it is heading towards normalization in the long term. He added that the rapprochement was concretized by visits at different levels, although it did not rise to the level of political recognition.

In Salaymeh’s view, Saudi Arabia remains reserved and reluctant on the issue of normalizing its relations with the regime but agrees with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt on the matter.

Salaymeh explained Saudi Arabia’s hesitation with its “symbolism” and regional role, in addition to its differentiation from UAE policy and the US position rejecting normalization with the regime and its return to the League of Arab States.

Would the pilgrimage file be reassigned to the regime?

The regime’s comments accusing Saudi Arabia each year of “depriving Syrians of performing the Hajj and Riyadh’s politicization of said religious duty” have been repeated since the Hajj pilgrimage file was assigned to the opposition, although the Committee accepts Syrian applicants regardless of their place of residence.

On 24 April, the Director of Hajj at the Syrian regime’s Ministry of Endowments, Hassan Nasrallah, considered that the statements of the Syrian Supreme Hajj Committee regarding this year’s Syrian pilgrims were issued by “parties hostile to the Syrian people” because Syrian pilgrims have always left Syria for Saudi Arabia under the auspices of the official Hajj mission of the Ministry of Endowments.

Nasrallah called on citizens not to register for the Hajj pilgrimage with entities he described as “unknown” and not approved by the Ministry of Endowments.

For his part, Bilal Salaymeh, a researcher in international relations, considered it natural for the Hajj pilgrimage file to be reassigned to the regime in the future in the event of an official rapprochement.

Meanwhile, the Director of the Supreme Hajj Committee, Samer Bayrakdar, told Enab Baladi that Hajj would turn into a long-held dream for more than half of the Syrians if the opposition were not in charge of it, stating that the regime would deal with it as it deals with all issues concerning Syrians in its institutions outside Syria, through exploitation, discrimination, and corruption.

According to a report published by Enab Baladi in 2017, the Syrian regime deliberately beleaguered pilgrims coming from Saudi Arabia security-wise. The report also quoted one of the pilgrims as saying that the Palestine Branch (Far’ Falastin) in Damascus summoned Syrian pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia after entering Syrian territory from the Syrian-Lebanese border.

Before Syrian pilgrims left for Saudi Arabia in the aforementioned year, there were 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.

At the time, the circular stated that “information was received that a number of Hajj and Umrah offices in Lebanon had secured entry visas for a number of Syrians to Saudi Arabia through its embassies to perform Hajj pilgrimage under the supervision of (the Syrian Opposition Coalition).” The circular also called to “prevent Syrian citizens having passports and visas to Saudi Arabia from leaving the country, and allow them only after reviewing Branch 235 (Palestine Branch)”.

“Committee” for all Syrians

The Hajj 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 Hajj season. Afterward, the Syrian Supreme Hajj Committee was established as a non-profit service institution that is administratively independent, according to the official website of the Coalition.

The Director of the Supreme Hajj Committee, Samer Bayrkadar, said that the Syrian opposition-led Hajj institution “excelled” in setting a model for state institutions in the future of Syria by serving all Syrians, regardless of their places of residence and their political positions, since the Hajj file is a file that concerns all Syrians without exception.

The Committee has offices in northern Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon, and Egypt.

In Bayrakdar’s view, it is the regime that tries to prevent Syrians residing in its areas of control from performing the Hajj pilgrimage in a variety of ways, including preventing them from traveling, distorting the image of the Hajj Committee, summoning pilgrims to the Palestine Branch for investigation after their return, arresting administrators approved by the Committee, and imposing fees on those who wish to go to Hajj.

 

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