Published November 20, 2014
Fortunate enough to squeeze his way through crowds into what Muslims consider one of the most sacred places on earth, Mohammed knelt in worship, put his head on the cold white marble, and wept for Syria.
Only a few feet away from the Kaaba, the cube shaped structure in Mecca, Saudi Arabia that observant Muslims pray toward five times a day, the Syrian-born pilgrim had traveled from his home in the Washington, D.C. area to perform the hajj, an elaborate and exhausting set of purification rites able-bodied Muslims must perform once in their lives.
Ahead of hundreds of thousands arriving to the spot, the entrepreneur, who closed a Syrian branch of his information technology business seven months ago, had a chance to pray in quiet for those in his war-ravaged homeland, especially a cousin kidnapped earlier this year. After the family paid some $20,000 dollars in ransom to what they believe were pro-government forces known as shabiha, only a burnt corpse was returned.
"Tears came down my face thinking about kids, refugees and all those killed," Mohammed said, asking, like others interviewed, that his last name be withheld for fear of retaliation against family in Syria. "These people had cars and homes and lives."
"I prayed for God to free Syria from the unjust regime that had us living under fear and panic for 40 years," he added, referring to the Assad family's rule over Syria, which began over four decades ago with President Bashar Assad's late father. "We want the downfall of the regime and in its place a modern country built on equality."
No exact figures exist for the number of Syrians among this year's 3.4 million hajj pilgrims — most of those performing the rite were either Saudi residents or held a second citizenship. Unlike groups from other nations, who fly flags atop buses and tents, Syria's banner was nowhere in sight.
The country's official news agency has blamed Saudi Arabia for not facilitating visa requests for would-be pilgrims. The kingdom denies this, saying Damascus did not fulfill the usual requirements to ensure its quota of some 20,000 visas. Like many nations opposed to Assad's regime, the Saudis have closed their embassy in Syria and cut off communications with officials.
The 19 months of turmoil in Syria have claimed more than 35,000 lives, activists say. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says more than 340,000 people have fled the country, with a total 710,000 expected by the end of the year.
Top clerics from the Gulf region have advised people in Syria to disburse the thousands of dollars that would have been spent on the pilgrimage for humanitarian assistance instead.
Far from the fighting, on Saudi Arabia's Mount Arafat, all that Tareq el-Issa could think of was his family in Deir al-Zour province — an opposition stronghold near Iraq that has seen some of the heaviest clashes between Syrian government troops and rebels.
"There is only killing and destruction," he said, turning his face to the side to fight back tears. Aside from the simple, terry cloth robe worn by pilgrims, he carried the flag of Syria's rebels draped over his shoulders.
"May God punish all those leaders who are quiet and seeing what's happening and not doing anything," he added from the site, where Muslims believe all sincere prayers and worship will be answered. "May God punish you Bashar, wherever you are."
El-Issa has been in Saudi Arabia for around three years, and his friend Laurence Jeljasim fled his home earlier this year. Both and are now residing in Saudi Arabia.
"The Syrian flag is not here, so we wanted to raise (the rebel flag) and remind people that there are people being killed, raped, massacred, their corpses desecrated," Jeljasim said, adding that this would be the fourth Muslim feast to pass in which his countrymen are killing one another.
The flag was not the only sign of support for the uprising against Assad at the pilgrimage — some female pilgrims were seen wearing discreet bracelets bearing the rebel colors under their long robes.
Back in Mecca, another Mohammed from the Syrian city of Deraa said his holiday season was bittersweet. The 25-year-old office administrator left the country five years ago in search of work, facing unemployment and stagnation in his hometown — where the torture of schoolboys by the government led to mass protests that sparked the country's uprising.
Now living in Saudi Arabia, he was happy to perform the hajj for the second time, but thoughts of his homeland pained him.
"There's been too much blood spilled. It's enough," he said. "We are praying for stability and for God to calm things down."