Prague, 4 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As in many Muslim countries these days, the airport in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, is full of pilgrims flying to Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj.
A flight control officer at the Tashkent airport described the scene: "Many have already left [for the hajj]. We started flights on 24 December, and they're still continuing. Today, for example, we have another flight for our pilgrims, God willing."
In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, hajjis arrange their trips either through private firms or state agencies.
In Turkmenistan, where the lives of citizens are strictly controlled by the state, the final say on the issue of the hajj belongs to President Saparmurat Niyazov. He personally approves the list of pilgrims from Turkmenistan, which usually includes some 200 people, the fewest among the five countries of the region.
Uzbekistan’s Muslims have to apply for the hajj through a state agency that monitors procedures related to the pilgrimage. They travel on the state airline.
Uzbek authorities say pilgrims benefit from state control over the hajj. "I am not bragging about it, you know, but it is true that Uzbekistan has the best conditions in terms of organizing the hajj and paying attention to pilgrims’ needs among all the Central Asian countries," Shukhrat Ismailov of Uzbekistan's State Committee on Religious Affairs told RFE/RL.
"This year, 5,000 people are going on the hajj. They are accompanied by 100 heads of groups, 30 doctors, and some 40 members of the working group," Ismailov added. "There are even cooks, because Uzbeks are picky in terms of food and drink lots of tea. We took all these into account while organizing the hajj."
Ismailov said Uzbekistan’s cabinet of ministers issues a special decree on the hajj every year and gives instructions to certain government bodies on organizing it, including the Interior Ministry and the Transportation Ministry.
The Uzbek government strictly controls citizens’ religious activities. Any Muslims caught practicing their faith outside of state-controlled mosques risk persecution. Officers from the Uzbek security services accompany pilgrims on the hajj.
"Escort includes police and officers of the national security service. They also go [to Mecca], watch the activities of pilgrims, and provide their security," the flight-control officer at the Tashkent airport explained.
The Saudi ministry in charge of the hajj issues quotas for the number of pilgrims allowed from each Muslim country. Usually it is 1,000 pilgrims for every 1 million people.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan use their quotas fully. But Uzbekistan, with a population of 26 million, is sending only 5,000 pilgrims to the hajj this year. Ismailov did not explain the reasons for not filling the quota, but said this year’s number is higher than last, when 4,000 pilgrims from Uzbekistan were given permission to perform the hajj.
High prices are likely to prevent many Uzbeks from undertaking the pilgrimage, in any event. This year, each pilgrim had to pay more than $2,500. Others were not able to pass state-organized exams that test the faithful on their knowledge of Islam, the Koran, hadith, and the hajj itself.
Muhammadjon, from Uzbekistan’s eastern Ferghana Valley, paid for his mother’s pilgrimage and was involved in organizing it. He said many people willing to go to Mecca are refused by the authorities. "The problem they encountered was that all groups were full, places were not available," he said. "This was the major problem."
In Kyrgyzstan, pilgrims face a similar problem. This year, 4,500 Kyrgyz Muslims are expected to travel to the hajj. But the number of those who wanted to go was much higher. Reportedly, more than 7,000 applied for the hajj.
Some 2,500 of them have still not had their passports returned, however, nor have they received their money back. Last week, a group of Muslims protested outside the Islamic center in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh.
One of them, Sabirjon Iminov, told RFE/RL: "We asked [the authorities], ‘Why didn’t you stop accepting [applications] when they reached 4,500? Why do you have our money?’ They said they didn’t know anything. Let us have our money back! We don’t know whether we were issued a visa. We don’t have our passports."
The Kyrgyz problems have occurred despite a decree aimed at improving the hajj process signed by Prime Minister Feliks Kulov on 19 December.
In 2004, Tajik authorities banned private firms and travel agencies from handling the hajj process. They transferred the right to deal with potential pilgrims to the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs. Bus tours to Saudi Arabia were also banned, leaving the state air company as the only carrier of pilgrims.
This year, Tajikistan’s 6,000 pilgrims had to pay some $2,300 for the hajj -- $500 more than last year. Authorities say the hike was due to a rise in fuel prices.
(RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)