12/15/2007, 00.00
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Government stops pilgrims attending Haj

For years the journey to Mecca is allowed for a select few from majority Muslim the country. Despite promises of greater freedom, this year only 200 will be allowed attend among them party chiefs and secret police.

Ashgabat (AsiaNews/F18) – Turkmenistan failed to keep its promise to allow its citizens participate in the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, which begins on December 18th.  Forum 18 denounces that only 188 pilgrims will be allowed participate.

Saudi Arabia – which limits numbers from each country to avoid overcrowding – set 5 thousand places aside for the nation, but Ashgabat has organised one single flight and has limited that number to 188.  The same number as 2006 and 2005, on both occasions only one flight was organised.  Participants are “carefully selected by the government” and the approval of the Gengeshi (Council) for religious affairs is needed. Among pilgrims this year figures the Minister for State Security, party officials and members of the secret police.

Turkmenistan has persistently justified the scarce numbers with the high costs of the journey.  This flight is paid for by the state and it is underlined that the President, Kunrbanguly Berdymukhamedov has allowed for the free trip.  But high ranking government officials had promised that anyone can attend at their own expense.  According to Forum 18, sources from the Iranian State Transport ministry say they had offered access across Iran by bus for those wishing to travel to Mecca.

 Muslims must undertake the Haj pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.  But for years now Turkmenistan has not granted permission, thus most of the majority Muslim population have been unable to attend.  Last April Berdymukhamedov went on pilgrimage (a.ka umra, believed “less important” than the haj) which was given massive coverage on state TV where he reminded viewers that the pilgrimage is “obligatory for every Muslim”.  Even with the new president less than a year in power, the government has yet to concede freedom of movement and visas are needed to leave the country.



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