For most Muslims the pilgrimage to Mecca is a sacred duty to be completed at least once in a lifetime. But Turkmenistan’s Muslim-majority population should surely receive divine dispensation. Under restrictions imposed by the authoritarian government, an eager pilgrim can wait over 10 years to receive permission to perform the haj.
Every country has a quota, a limit to how many Muslims it can send on haj each year. Turkmenistan is facilitating travel for only one-seventh of its quota this year, despite the long waiting lists, Oslo-based religious-freedom watchdog Forum 18 reported on August 25:
Muslims in Balkan Region of western Turkmenistan have to wait on average between eight and eleven years to reach the top of the waiting list to join the state-organized haj pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, an official of the regional Religious Affairs office told Forum 18 News Service from Balkanabad on 21 August. Turkmenistan's government is allowing just under a seventh of the haj quota allocated by the Saudi authorities to travel this October to Mecca. "Turkmenistan is one of the governments not doing all it can to help pilgrims," a Saudi consular official told Forum 18 from Ashgabat.
According to data provided to Forum 18 by the Saudi government, Turkmenistan will send 650 pilgrims on haj this year. Prior to 2013, it had only ever sent 188 at a time – the precise number of people that can be squeezed into a state-owned airplane. Forum 18 claimed in 2011 that the tally included officers from the country’s feared security service.
Ashgabat is easing restrictions, however. Forum 18 continues:
The Saudi consular official attributed the rise from 188 to 650 to the surge in demand in 2013. "Many people came to our embassy last year requesting haj visas outside the state-organized group," the official told Forum 18. "We had to help them." The official said a total of 1,277 visas were issued for the October 2013 haj, including the 188 from the state-organized group. "The rest travelled independently, paying for themselves."
The official confirmed that this was the first time that the Turkmen authorities had allowed any haj pilgrims not in the state-organized group to make the pilgrimage.
Turkmenistan’s pilgrim numbers are still well below those of other states in post-Soviet Central Asia, which despite their own dubious religious-freedom records still allow thousands of citizens to make the journey every year.
In 2009, Turkmenistan vetoed the haj completely, reportedly due to concerns over the swine flu pandemic. To help fill the void, according to RFE/RL, authorities created a “Homegrown Haj” that saw worshippers bussed between mosques and shrines in the isolationist state. Pig flu did not stop Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks from travelling to Mecca.
Last month Turkmenistan joined the U.S. State Department’s elite list of especially gross religious freedom offenders – its “countries of particular concern."