Hajj 2024: unregistered pilgrims hide out in the holy city

asmaa - | Arab News

In Saudi Arabia, thousands opt for an off-the-books Hajj, trading savings for legal risks. Seeking to evade formal channels, they face potential deportation if caught by security forces.

Illegal Hajj participants risk arrest for a cheaper pilgrimage.

Mohammed, a 70-year-old Egyptian, lives covertly in a Makkah apartment, aiming to undertake the pilgrimage without official clearance. He's one of many Muslims attempting to complete the annual rite cost-effectively, dodging the hefty expenses of approved routes, though at the peril of legal consequences.

Denied an official Hajj permit for over a decade in Egypt's lottery system, Mohammed couldn't afford the state's travel packages, priced at 175,000 Egyptian pounds. Choosing an alternate path, he secured a tourist visa to Saudi Arabia, arranging accommodation near Mount Arafat through a local agent for 3,500 Saudi riyals.

Now sequestered with seven others, Mohammed awaits the pilgrimage's commencement, venturing out only when necessary. Despite challenges, he remains resolute in his commitment to perform the sacred rituals.

The Hajj, a fundamental Islamic obligation, draws millions to Makkah annually for rituals spanning four days. Yet alongside the official participants, an estimated 100,000 irregular pilgrims partake, complicating crowd management and safety measures.

In response to past tragedies, notably the 2015 stampede in Mina, Saudi authorities have intensified efforts to curb illegal pilgrimages. Fines for unauthorized pilgrims and facilitators start at 10,000 Saudi riyals, with recent arrests targeting alleged hajj-related fraudsters.

Despite warnings and punitive measures, unauthorized Hajj persists, fueled in part by the 2019 introduction of general tourism visas, which offer easier access to Saudi Arabia. Travel agents exploit loopholes, ferrying pilgrims under the radar, citing logistical challenges in enforcement.

With scorching temperatures averaging 44 degrees Celsius expected during this year's Hajj, unregistered pilgrims face added risks, deprived of official amenities like air-conditioned camps. Many endure austere conditions, sleeping in mosques or makeshift shelters.

Ayman, a 37-year-old Egyptian, reflects on his clandestine Hajj experience last year, characterized by hardship and constant vigilance against security forces. Despite the challenges, he remains undeterred, emphasizing the spiritual significance of the pilgrimage amidst adversity.

Despite the risks and hardships faced by unauthorized pilgrims, their determination to fulfill the sacred obligation of Hajj reflects the profound call of faith. For many, the pilgrimage represents a deeply spiritual journey, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with their beliefs and commune with fellow believers from around the world.

In the face of logistical hurdles and legal ramifications, their resolve remains unshaken, driven by a steadfast commitment to honor their religious duties. As they navigate the challenges of unauthorized pilgrimage, they draw strength from their faith, finding solace and purpose amidst the trials of their journey towards spiritual fulfillment.

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