CAIRO - Aspiring to join millions of fellow Muslims in fulfilling the spiritual journey, hundreds of Burmese pilgrims have gathered at Yangon International Airport for flying to the holy lands in Saudi Arabia for performing hajj.
Thanks to Allah, I am going on Hajj, U Myint Swe from Ayeyarwady Region told The Myanmar Times on Monday, October 15.This is my third time and this time it is for my father.
Swe was among the first group of Burmese pilgrims to leave for the country for the holy city of Makkah.
Both Qatar Airways and Myanmar International Airways operated charter flights from Yangon to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, with the first departing on October 10.
A spokesperson from the Immigration Department said pilgrims began to form at the airport.
The airport isn't large enough to accommodate such a crowd, so we assembled the group near the arrivals hall, he said.
The airport was overcrowded with many of the pilgrims' relatives coming to bid them farewell.
My family came with me to the airport, which is very crowded today, Swe said.
Muslims from around the world pour into Makkah every year to perform hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Hajj consists of several rituals, which are meant to symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith, and to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family.
Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can financially afford the trip must perform hajj at least once in a lifetime.
Hajj starts on the eighth day of the lunar month of Dhul Hijjah, which falls this year on October 24.
Most pilgrims come earlier to visit the holy mosques in Makkah and nearby Madinah, where Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) was buried over 1,400 years ago.
Going to fulfil the spiritual journey, many Burmese pilgrims wish to overcome last year's problems with hajj visas.
U Soe Myint, who flew to Makkah with Qatar Airways on October 12, said he missed out on a Hajj visa last year.
I was refunded half the money I spent last year so I used a different travel agency this year, he said.
Increasing from about $4000-$4500 in 2011, hajj packages this year cost K3.8 million to K5 million (US$4442 to $5844).
Last year, some pilgrims reported having to pay agents an additional K3 million ($3506) for a Hajj visa, even though the Saudi embassy in Yangon issues the visas free of charge.
Hajj pilgrim committee representative for Ayeyarwady Region, U Soe Myint, said those who paid for a hajj package in 2011 but were not able to secure a visa did not receive refunds in full.
Some tour agencies gave back only half or one-third of the fees paid, he said.
Missing hajj visas, thousands of Muslims were left broken-hearted when they were unable to perform the life-time journey.
The Saudi embassy has taken some steps to improve the process this year, including compiling a list of official Hajj travel agents.
Burma's Muslims, mainly of Rohingyas ethnic minority, number upwards of five percent of the nation's more than 50 million people.
Rohingyas, ethnic-Bengali Muslims, have long suffered from discrimination and a catalogue of abuse in Burma.
An amendment to the citizenship laws in 1982 has deprived them of citizenship and made them illegal immigrants in their own home.Beside the Rohingyas, there are the Indian-descended Muslims who live in Yangon and ethnic-Chinese Muslims, known as the Panthay.