Syrians on haj pray for peace; Damascus says Riyadh plays politics

September 8, 2016 12:12 PM EDT

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By Dahlia Nehme

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Syrians from territory held by opposing sides in the civil war prayed together for peace as they flew to Mecca for the haj, even as President Bashar al-Assad's government accused Saudi Arabia of politicizing the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

Riyadh has no diplomatic ties with Damascus and requires Syrians seeking to make the haj to obtain visas in third countries through a committee controlled by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an anti-Assad opposition body.

"Saudi Arabia now does not deal with the legitimate government (in Syria) but rather with individuals who are not recognized, and thus the responsibility for protecting these people falls on the Saudi government," Sheikh Ahmed al-Jazaily, an advisor at Syria's Islamic Affairs ministry, told Reuters by telephone.

Tamam al-Khatib, an SNC official, said Saudi Arabia gave the group 9,000 visas for Syrian pilgrims residing in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.

For Syria, which had 23 million people before the war, that is far less than its usual quota of 1,000 visas per million Muslims, Jazaily said. All able-bodied Muslims who have the means are expected to make the pilgrimage once in their lifetimes.

Whichever side they came from, Syrians on board a flight from Beirut to Mecca made no mention of their differences and said the pilgrimage transcended politics.

Safaa, 40, said she had traveled from government-controlled Damascus with her parents, her sister, her brother and his wife, despite the difficulty of arranging the trip.

"All our friends and relatives in Damascus asked us to make special prayers for them while in the Grand Mosque," said Safaa, wearing the seamless white cloth all pilgrims must use during haj. "God willing, we will pray for them and all of Syria."

Mariam, 60, made the journey from Talfita, an opposition-held village north of the Syrian capital.

"We left the war and suffering and came to haj. By God ... I long to see the Prophet," she said, as her cousin Khadra gazed at white clouds and the yellow desert below. "May God give Syria a remission."

None of the Syrian pilgrims who spoke to Reuters on the flight would give their surnames, to protect relatives back home. Nor would any say which side they support in the five year conflict, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and made 11 million Syrians homeless.

Open discussion of politics is traditionally barred during the haj. However, Reuters met only members of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority on the flight; there appeared to be no members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, many of whose adherents see Saudi Arabia as a sectarian enemy.

Jazaily, the Syrian government advisor, said Damascus would not block Syrians from taking part in the haj, but would not be able to offer them protection.

"From our side, we are not stopping anybody from going to haj," he said. "But if a pilgrim goes on his own, are his rights protected? If they faced a problem, where will they turn?"

(Editing by Sami Aboudi, William Maclean and Peter Graff)



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