First Sri Lankan Pilgrims Depart for Hajj With Hopes, Prayers for Crisis-hit Nation

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More than 60 Sri Lankans departed for Hajj on Sunday, the first group of over 3,500 pilgrims expected to perform the spiritual journey in Saudi Arabia this year as the crisis-hit country shows signs of improvement.

As the Hajj returned in 2023 to pre-pandemic arrangements, Saudi Arabia initially approved the pilgrim quota of 3,500 for Sri Lanka and later added over a 100 more.

Sri Lanka fulfilled its entire quota this year after only about 960 pilgrims, or slightly more than the 2022 quota, were able to perform the Hajj last year.

“This year, 3,500 pilgrims from Sri Lanka are performing Hajj. They all hope and pray for Sri Lanka to recover from the current economic crisis, and for peace, harmony and unity among all communities in Sri Lanka,” Ibrahim Sahib Ansar, who oversees Hajj logistics at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, told Arab News.

“The religious belief has become strong among Sri Lankan Muslims. The gap of three years in performing Hajj has also made the desire of Sri Lankan Muslims to be firm and strong.”

Most of the pilgrims are younger than 50 and about 35 percent of them are women, Ansar said.

As there are no direct flights from Colombo to Jeddah, Sri Lankans will fly via Middle Eastern capitals with Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways, Gulf Air and Oman Air.

The first batch of Sri Lankan pilgrims, comprising more than 60 people, left Colombo on Sunday morning.

Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, who helped to negotiate Sri Lanka’s additional Hajj quota this year, said the past few years have been a “struggle” for Sri Lankans.

“It was a very tough affair for the Sri Lankans, but we are happy that things have returned to normal,” Sabry told Arab News.

“We are happy Sri Lankan Muslims are exercising their religious rights with a lot of pride and dignity in undertaking pilgrimage to holy cities. I wish them a meritorious journey.”

In 2022, Sri Lanka faced a political crisis as the country was gripped by the worst financial downturn since independence in 1948 and defaulted on foreign debt repayments. 

Though “economic recovery remains challenging,” the island nation is “showing tentative signs of improvement,” the International Monetary Fund said on Friday.

Sri Lanka’s inflation rate, which reached a record high of around 70 percent in September last year, eased to about 25 percent in May.  

“This year, we have regained our economy in a great way and our rupees have strengthened against the US dollar,” Rizmi Reyal, who heads the Sri Lanka Hajj Travel Operators Association, told Arab News.

“People have regained confidence in the country’s economy, and they are spending their savings on Hajj since they can feel they can earn their bucks easily because of the developing economy.”

In a send-off ceremony also attended by Sri Lankan officials early on Sunday, Saudi Ambassador to Colombo, Khalid bin Hamoud Al-Kahtani, “praised the level of coordination and cooperation” among Hajj authorities of the two countries, the Kingdom’s embassy in Sri Lanka said in a statement.

“The government of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques attaches great importance to the pilgrims of the House of the Almighty Allah and all measures have been taken to ensure the comfort of the pilgrims in order to perform Hajj rituals with great ease,” the statement added.

Source: ArabNews