Prague, 18 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- A group of Afghan men found themselves stuck at Kabul's airport on their way to Saudi Arabia last week. They accused airport officials of asking for bribes in exchange for being allowed on the plane.
Kabul authorities deny the allegations, saying the situation emerged due to poor coordination between Afghanistan's Hajj Ministry and the country's Ariana airlines.
There have been similar complaints in neighboring Uzbekistan. Some Muslims there accuse religious officials of demanding up to $500 from applicants in order to be included on a list of selected pilgrims.
In many countries of the former Soviet Union, a government institution selects pilgrims and grants licenses to travel agencies for organizing trips to the hajj. In addition, Saudi Arabia restricts the number of pilgrims who can attend the hajj each year due to logistical and security concerns.
"It is overpriced, and people cannot collect this amount. They will have to get involved in some machinations. It is very difficult for a citizen of the Russian Federation to collect $1,000."
Felix Corley is an editor at the Forum 18 online news agency, which covers religious freedom issues in the post-Soviet countries. Corley says state monopolies and the lack of transparency in the selection process -- combined with the limited number of hajj visas -- create a breeding ground both for rumors of corruption -- and for actual abuse.
He says his organization has been following the allegations of bribery and nepotism in Central Asia.
"In certain countries in Central Asia, there have been government restrictions on who can go on the hajj and allegations that people have to pay bribes or have to be well connected to be allowed to go on the hajj," Corley says.
More than 6,000 Uzbeks applied to attend the hajj this year -- 4,200 of them got visas.
Shukhrat Ismailov of Uzbekistan's State Committee on Religious Affairs denies allegations about bribery.
"These kind of things are not done as far as the hajj is concerned. People may talk about it, but the hajj is a great 'ibodat' [pillar of Islam]. [As Muslims,] we do our best trying to help people. We don't take money from them. We don't do anything that contradicts Islam," Ismailov says.
Observers say the same state monopolies also permit travel agencies -- and those who issue licenses to them -- to charge higher prices and to benefit from the pilgrims.
The Sputnik-Kazakhstan travel agency, which has a government license, sent 320 Kazakh Muslims to Mecca this year. The agency's Amangeldy Erenghaip says the cost of the hajj is about $2,600.
"That sum will cover everything -- food, transportation, round-trip plane tickets -- all will be covered by 310,000 tenges [$2,600 dollars]. The only additional fee is $100 for 'qurban' that is not included in the $2,600. Every pilgrim should choose voluntarily to give or not to give this sum," Erenghaip says.
Azerbaijan received a quota of 8,000 pilgrims from the Saudi authorities in 2005. But only 3,000 Azerbaijani Muslims actually went on this year's hajj.
Corley says this is due to high prices.
"In Azerbaijan, there's been a lot of controversy over the control that a couple of companies have over who can organize the hajj pilgrimages from Azerbaijan, with allegations that the prices they charge -- of about $1,200 -- is above what would be the price were there to be open competition with a variety of companies competing for the hajj. Basically, the prices are so high that you don't need to bribe your way in to getting a ticket because there is plenty of space available," Corley says.
Muslims in Russia have to pay around $1,000 to attend the hajj -- less than their Kazakh and Azerbaijani counterparts. But they, too, complain about the price.
Magomed-Rasul Mugumayev, author of a book called "Human Rights in Shari'a," is a well-known Islamic scholar from Russia.
"There were complaints. Yesterday, people from Ingushetia and Daghestan came [and complained]. They say the Religious Board cheats them. When I talked to people from the religious department, they say, 'What can we do? We set the price according to orders from above.' But it can't be a justification. Islam prohibits cheating," Mugumayev says.
Mugumayev says high price can result in misdeeds.
"It is overpriced, and people cannot collect this amount. They will have to get involved in some machinations. It is very difficult for a citizen of the Russian Federation to collect $1,000," Mugumayev says.
In order to make up some of their expenses, pilgrims often sell goods during the trip to Saudi Arabia.
Experts say Islam encourages commerce since the Prophet Muhammad and his first wife, Khadijah, were merchants. Only the sale of narcotics and alcohol is banned.
Mugumayev, however, is critical of this practice.
"It completely distracts a Muslim from essential things like the creator, the hajj, and its significance. Commerce, as well as some other machinations people have to get involved in, distract from the hajj. Some people say they had to sell goods in order to recover the huge amount of money they had to pay [for the hajj]," Mugumayev says.
In Turkmenistan, 188 people selected by the government's religious body benefit from the hajj not only spiritually but financially, too. They are given an opportunity to exchange $1,100 using an official exchange rate that is significantly lower than the market rate.
Some Muslim governments are taking steps to address the issue of the hajj and corruption.
The daily "Jakarta Post" wrote last week that the Indonesian government has allocated $72,000 and assigned a group of lawmakers to follow pilgrims on the hajj and find out if there is any abuse.
After paying a fee, many Indonesian pilgrims have to wait for one year before being allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia. They complain that the overseers of the hajj process are making large profits from the interest gained by keeping hajj fees in bank deposits.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Uzbek, and Russian services contributed to this report.)