August 8, 2018 3:43 pm
Updated: August 8, 2018 4:00 pm

‘A huge curveball’: Canadian Muslims travelling for hajj nervous amid political tensions

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Mehek Mazhar and her husband had been planning on going for hajj, a pilgrimage Muslims around the world make to Saudi Arabia, ever since they got married.

“We wanted to do it in our first year of marriage, just because it’s a nice way to start off your life together,” the 25-year-old from London, Ont., told Global News.

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The annual hajj pilgrimage takes place Aug. 19 to 24 this year.

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But the newlyweds faced a “huge curveball” just days before their scheduled departure to Saudi Arabia on Aug. 11, when tensions between the country and Canada boiled over.

A diplomatic spat, which began when Canada’s Global Affairs Ministry called for the release of jailed female activists, led to travel and trade tensions amid the busy season, which sees more than two million people from around the world travel to Saudi Arabia.

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The country’s state airline, Saudia, announced it would suspend flights to and from Canada starting Aug. 13.

The airline operates at least two routes to the country, both of which depart from Toronto.

Mazhar’s flight to Saudi Arabia is before that date, however the couple’s return flight on Aug. 26 is impacted, she explained.

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“We both work, and we can’t wait maybe a week to just see how long we wait to get back to Canada,” she said, explaining that the couple had to book an alternate trip home through Lufthansa airlines.

Though their plans are still intact, the change comes with a hefty price tag.

The trip, which can cost up to about $15,000 per person, is thought of as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many — and is something people save years to afford.

“When you’re dealing with that much money, especially as a new couple, putting in the extra money to buy another ticket just because you’re unaware of the situation and what could happen, it is difficult,” Mazhar said.

According to Statistics Canada, preliminary numbers show about 84,000 Canadians travelled to the country in 2017, with 4,000 saying it was for religious purposes.

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Mazhar noted that around 600 people are going with her travel agency alone, which means many are in similar situations.

And several Canadians are checking up on their arrangements, with busy queues reported at the Saudia booths at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims explained the political tensions “pose challenges” to those that are travelling to the country for hajj.

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The organization urged those travelling in the coming days to contact their airlines and respective travel agencies to see if there are alternative travel options.

“Canadian Muslims travelling for Hajj should ensure their return flight to Canada is confirmed on an alternate route or airline prior to leaving Canada,” NCCM stressed in the statement.

It added those travelling to Saudi Arabia should not assume alternative arrangements will be made by travel agencies — they should instead take action themselves.

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“Travellers who fail to make alternate arrangements could also be prevented from returning to Canada and risk being stuck in Saudi Arabia for an indeterminate period of time.”

For Canadians travelling to Saudi, or those who are concerned about their trip home, Global Affairs Canada said that the Embassy of Canada to Saudi Arabia, which is located in the city of Riyadh, remains open.

READ MORE: Is Canada being inconsistent about human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia?

“The hajj is an important religious pilgrimage made annually by many Canadians and Muslims all around the world,” an email statement to Global News read.

“The Embassy of Canada to Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, continues its regular operations, including consular services.”

It added that Canadians should visit the government’s website for updated information, travel.gc.ca.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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