Friday, March 20, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Push for Larger Haj Quota May Create Problems Abroad and at Home

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 20 – The Russian government will again seek to have the Saudi authorities raise the quota for Russian citizens who want to make the haj, an effort that in the past has allowed more Muslims from Russia to make the pilgrimage than would have been the case had the Saudis applied the formula they use to set quotas for all other countries.
This decision, taken yesterday by the government’s Commission on Questions of Religious Organizations, will be welcomed by Muslims in the Russian Federation, but it may create problems for Moscow with the governments of other Muslim countries as well as with non-Muslims in Russia itself.
As guardians of the Holy Places of Islam, the Saudi authorities set annual quotas for each country in the world equal to one-tenth of one percent of the total number of Muslims living in each. The Saudis estimate that there are 20,500,000 Muslims in the Russian Federation and consequently have set the Russian haj quota for this year and next at 20,500.
Russia’s Muslims have argued that they should have a larger quota to make up for the Soviet period when the communist regime allowed only a handful of Muslims to make the pilgrimage, and the Russian government has taken up their cause, winning a boost of 5,000 extra slots two years ago and 1,000 slots last year (
Those efforts have been criticized in some Muslim countries and by some non-Muslims in the Russian Federation. On the one hand, many Muslim states resent the idea that Moscow appears to be muscling in to get special treatment even as their faithful have to wait for years to get a slot to go to Mecca.
And on the other, many non-Muslims in Russia fear that Moscow is overstating the number of Muslims in Russia to boost the haj quota. That statistic is very much a matter of dispute. There are no census figures, and consequently many non-Muslims and especially the Russian Orthodox Church insist on a relatively small number while Muslims claim a larger one.
In addition to pressing for a larger haj quota, the Russian authorities have announced two additional steps. They said today that they would seek to establish a Russian office in Saudi Arabia to support those from the Russian Federation making the haj. And they said that they would seek to create an association of haj tour firms to ensure better treatment for the hajis.
The creation of such an office for the Muslims is not unprecedented: Other countries have them. But it may lead to demands by leaders of other religious groups for an expansion in government support for the opening of additional offices for them in places where they have pilgrimage or other interests (
The creation of an association of tour operators, although it may give the Russian government a stronger voice in the way in which the haj is conducted, including the balance between those who travel by air and those who go on the ground, is something that will be welcomed at least among Russia’s Muslims.
Last year as in the past, there have been complaints about tour firms that took money from the faithful and then did not provide the promises services, and the media was full of reports about hajis from Russia who had had difficulty in getting medical attention or who had died during the haj, although in reality the number of the latter has been quite small.

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