Concerns about the spread of swine flu are creating an additional hurdle for Central Asian believers hoping to make the Hajj, or the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Some believers in the region say that Central Asian governments do more to frustrate than facilitate the Hajj, which is a moral obligation for every Muslim to undertake at least once in his or her lifetime. The Hajj this year is slated for late November. This 2009 pilgrimage will be occurring amid worries that bringing so many believers together from all corners of the globe could give a big boost to the H1N1 swine flu pandemic. In mid-October, Saudi Arabian authorities announced a series of measures designed to check the virus' spread. The Saudis now require travelers to Mecca be vaccinated against the virus at least two weeks prior to arrival. Officials have also asked pregnant women and the elderly to stay home.With the spread of Islamic radicalism a big concern for authoritarian-minded governments in Central Asia, the Hajj has posed a dilemma for regional officials in recent years. The fact that the overwhelming majority of residents in the five Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- are Muslim means that governments must be seen as helping citizens to make the Hajj. But at the same time, authorities clearly are intent on tightly controlling the process. There is a general shortage of medicines and supplies in Central Asia. In some countries, especially Turkmenistan, the health-care infrastructure is in a disastrous state. Thus, hardly anyone in the region has been vaccinated against H1N1. But demonstrating their uneasy attitude toward the Hajj, officials have done little, if anything to help would-be pilgrims meet the vaccination requirement. In desperation, some would-be pilgrims are seeking out regular flu vaccines in the hope that Saudi authorities will overlook the discrepancy.Some observers say Uzbek authorities are taking advantage of H1N1 worries to curtail the movement of believers. In September, Mufti Usmonkhon Alimov, the chairman of the Spiritual Board of Uzbekistan's Muslims, a government agency, issued a fatwa, or religious injunction, imposing a temporary ban on the Umrah, also known as the lesser Hajj. Alimov indicated that the fatwa was issued in response to the spread of swine flu.Uzbek authorities have also sharply limited the number of people who can make the Hajj. The Saudi government annually allots Uzbekistan a quota of 25,000 pilgrims. However, thus far less than 5,000 have received permits to make the pilgrimage, according to Uzbek press reports, and it appears no more will be granted permission.In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where the Saudi quota for pilgrims is established at 4,500 for each country, authorities have not applied stringent Uzbek-style measures. Yet some in Kyrgyzstan question if all the allotted spaces have been distributed. Mambet Asan Ibraev, the head of Kyrgyzstan's organizing committee for the Hajj, part of the Spiritual Board, or Muftiyat, told journalists on October 5 that the Saudi quota was already filled. But private tour agency representatives who spoke to EurasiaNet say that the total number of Kyrgyz pilgrims making the Hajj this year is less than 4,000.In July, Tajik President Imomali Rahmon urged his country's citizens to forgo the pilgrimage and use their savings on domestic investment projects designed to help prop up the country's ailing economy. State-run spiritual boards in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have also raised the cost of making the trip. In 2008, the travel package was fixed at around $2,700 in Tajikistan, and $2,100 in Kyrgyzstan. Now, Kyrgyz authorities are reportedly requiring pilgrims to pay a flat rate of $2,400 to arrange for visas, lodging and transportation on charter flights. In Tajikistan, the Muftiyat has reportedly upped the cost to $3000. Muftiyat representatives say that the price hike is due to a rise in transportation and lodging costs."The price is too high. Few people will want to spend a whole fortune on a single trip," a Bishkek-based travel agent who specializes in arranging Hajj trips told EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. In previous years, "people financed their Hajj trips through remittances from their relatives [who work as labor migrants] in Russia. The [financial] crisis in Russia has affected many people's plans this year." Despite the barriers imposed by the swine flu crisis and the global financial meltdown, many believers -- especially in the Uzbek section of the Ferghana Valley, where competition for available spots is high -- remain determined to make the Hajj. According to the Bishkek-based tour agent, more than a dozen Uzbek citizens sought to go to Mecca using falsified Kyrgyz passports. In an early July interview with the 24.kg news agency, Tolkunbek Arsen uulu, the press secretary of the Kyrgyz Muftiyat, admitted that in previous years some Uzbek citizens made the pilgrimage by illegally obtaining Kyrgyz passports. But authorities say they will not allow the practice to continue. "In 2009 we have strengthened passport control. Now believers can make Hajj only with new passports, which are hard to fake," said Arsen uulu.
Alisher Khamidov is a writer based in Osh.
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