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Syrian pilgrims camp at Beirut airport

Hajj pilgrims wait at the Beirut airport. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

BEIRUT: Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport was packed Tuesday with eager Lebanese and Syrian pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. But for nearly 200 Syrians at the airport, their pilgrimage didn’t get off the ground.

Mohammad Bayraqdar from Damascus had been waiting to get a ticket at the airport since Sunday.

“I was among 180 Syrians with visas [to Saudi Arabia] who slept in the airport last night awaiting tickets,” he said angrily.

Saudi Arabia closed its embassy in Syria in March over political disputes. The Syrian regime accuses the monarchy of providing arms and funds for “terrorist gangs,” the term it uses to describe rebels that have been fighting the regime since the uprising against President Bashar Assad broke out in March last year.

Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri said last week that Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz ordered embassies in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to grant visas for Syrians wishing to take part in the Muslim pilgrimage.

“Last week we were told that we could get visas from Beirut, so we came to Beirut and got a visa from the Saudi Embassy after standing in lines throughout the day,” said Bayraqdar, sitting near his luggage outside the airport.

“I went Sunday to offices of the Saudi Airlines and found out that there are no tickets. I was asked to come Monday,” Bayraqdar added.

He said that 180 Syrians, including him, were unable to get tickets Monday and were promised by the Saudi Airlines that a plane would take them Tuesday. “But they closed at 3:30 p.m. and gave tickets to no one.”

“We were told that the Saudi Airlines are not carrying anymore pilgrims,” complained Qassem Nouri, another Syrian, as he showed his passport, bearing the Saudi visa.

“Those who are paying more are getting tickets,” claimed a Syrian woman standing near Nouri and many other Syrians gathered in the airport.

“Some Lebanese were just given tickets,” she added.

Some would-be pilgrims kept asking whomever they met whether there was hope that they would be able to make it to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi Airlines could not be reached by The Daily Star. But a source from the Committee of Hajj and Umra Affairs,which is under the prime minister’s office, said that a Saudi Airlines plane would take them Wednesday.

Not everyone was out of luck. Abdel-Menhem Sayyed, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon from Aleppo, bought a ticket from a different airline after he was told by Saudi Airlines that tickets were no longer available.

Accompanied by his wife and daughter, Sayyed said he would pray in Mecca for stability to be restored in Syria and for his property there to be preserved.

“We will pray for God to protect our house and shops and the shops of people,” he said.

Sayyed said his shop is located in Aleppo’s old souk, which was the site of battles between Syrian regime troops and rebels earlier this month.

“But I was told that it did not suffer damage,” he said.

The pilgrimage to Mecca, which is one of the five pillars of Islam and is known as hajj, starts Wednesday, reaches its peak Thursday and ends Saturday.

Sayyed’s hopes for a better future for his country were shared by Lebanese pilgrim Saeed Shwaraba.

As they made their way with luggage to the ticket counter, Shawraba and his wife said they would pray for the situation to become stable in Lebanon.

“We all want goodness and peace for the country,” Shwarab said. “Who likes what is happening on streets? Does any sane person like this?”

Roads were blocked across Lebanon and armed clashes broke out in Beirut and Tripoli following last week’s assassination of Brig. General Wissam al-Hasan.

However, the Army succeeded in restoring calm starting Monday.

Shwaraba said he is not afraid that the security situation in Lebanon will deteriorate during his trip: “I hope not, there are wise people here.”

“We strongly rely on God ... all Lebanese are brothers, we will pray that these difficult times in our nation are over,” his wife interjected.

The committee source said that the Saudi Embassy in Beirut has given visas to around 15,000 Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian pilgrims.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 24, 2012, on page 3.

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