MOSCOW – The plunge in the ruble currency is making Russians' travels abroad hugely more expensive. For thousands of the country's Muslims, that means more than just canceling a beach vacation, but putting on hold a once-in-a-lifetime religious experience — the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
Islam's hajj pilgrimage, which all Muslims are obliged to carry out at least once, begins Sept. 21 and due to the ruble's slump in currency markets now costs almost as much as the average annual salary in some of Russia's often poor Muslim regions.
The result is that this year little more than 12,000 pilgrims from Russia will go to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, compared to more than 20,000 in recent years, says Rushan Abbyasov, the deputy chairman of the Council of Muftis, Russia's top Islamic authority.
"After the dollar rate started to rise, for many people it clearly became problematic to go on hajj," says Abbyasov.
Amid a drop in the price for oil, the lifeblood of the Russian economy, the ruble has fallen by about 50 percent this year against the dollar. "The payment for all the flights, accommodation and much else has to be paid in dollars," Abbyasov says.
The number of pilgrims is strictly controlled by Saudi Arabian authorities and many countries with large Muslim populations typically request extra places, especially now that quotas are reduced due to construction work in Mecca. Russia usually has to turn applicants away due to high demand. This year, it has failed to meet its quota of 16,400.
Pilgrims from Russia will typically pay around $3,000 for a travel package including flights and accommodation. Some cheaper packages are in place for those willing to brave a 30-hour bus ride across the Saudi desert to save on flight costs.
The poor North Caucasus region of Dagestan, which has an Islamist insurgency, is traditionally the largest source of Russian pilgrims. Average wages there totaled 234,000 rubles ($3,470) over the 12 months to June, according to Russia's state statistics agency. Devotees often save for years.
Control over the pilgrimage quotas is one of the main powers of Russia's state-backed Islamic establishment, the main voice of moderation in a country where violence involving extremist groups often flares.
In a sign of support for moderate Islam, Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to attend the opening this month of a new mosque in central Moscow capable of holding 10,000 worshippers, hopefully putting an end to scenes of worshippers forced to pray on the street outside due to a lack of capacity.
Abbyasov says that the Russian government, charities and Muslim businessmen are helping to fund pilgrimages.
State help is particularly noticeable in Crimea, the peninsula annexed from Ukraine last year. The Crimean Tatars, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority group, were largely against the annexation and some have complained of harassment from the new Russian authorities. Now local officials are positioning themselves as defenders of the pilgrims. With financial help from the local government, Crimea is one of the few regions to fulfil its quota.
Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Ruslan Balbek this month accused Ukraine of "trying to damage the Muslims of Crimea" by asking the Saudi government not to allow Russia to administer Crimean pilgrimages. "To obstruct the Hajj is to stop a person from praying," Balbek said.
Large sums are being spent to send 322 Crimean pilgrims to Mecca this month, with Abbyasov estimating around $1,000 per person had been put toward flights by Crimean authorities. Balbek did not specify how much government money was being spent, but said there was aid for flights.
The difficulties surrounding the pilgrimage are part of a broader trend in which Russians are turning away from foreign travel as the ruble's drop makes going abroad more expensive.
"As soon as there is a minimal fluctuation, any minimal instability, it really influenced the sales," says Maya Lomidze, head of the Russian Association of Tour Operators. Demand for holidays abroad is down by 35 to 40 percent, she says, while trips to Russian resorts such as Crimea or last year's Winter Olympics host Sochi are up by 20 to 25 percent. "For the first time in 20 years, domestic tourism has turned out to be much cheaper than foreign tourism," Lomidze adds.
While their task may be harder, for many of Russia's would-be pilgrims it is only a question of when, not if, they get to visit Mecca.
Among the worshippers outside Moscow's nearly-completed mosque at Friday prayers, athlete Shamil Asmanov spoke for many when he said: "I'm still saving up. The first chance I get, I'll do the hajj."