In the first batch, a group of 180 pilgrims, mostly from Aleppo and its surroundings, entered from Syria’s Bab Al-Salama crossing in northern Aleppo to Turkey’s Oncupinar crossing in the south-eastern town of Kilis.
The group will be followed by another 1,058 pilgrims. It is estimated that 7,000 Syrian pilgrims will pass through Turkey.
Permission is granted by Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, and the pilgrimage is organized by the Syrian Higher Committee of Pilgrimage, under the auspices of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCROS).
Hajj, which is obligatory for every Muslim who can afford it, gathers Muslims from around the world each year in Saudi Arabia as of early September.
“Many of the pilgrims reached Turkey at the end of a two-day trip,” Syrian pilgrim Abdurrahman Nehlevi told the Anadolu news agency.
“It isn’t easy to go to the pilgrimage from Syria. We were very tired when we got here, but Turkey offered us a facility at the border and took care of us very well.”
Omar Kadkoy, a research associate at the Ankara-based think-tank TEPAV who works on the socioeconomic integration of Syrian refugees, said Turkey’s opening of the border for Hajj is very much appreciated by Syrian pilgrims.
Had it not been for the safety achieved by Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria, “it could’ve been more difficult for Syrians to perform their (Hajj) duty,” he added.
Selma Bardakci, a fellow at international exchange organization Atlas Corps, said facilitating Syrians’ pilgrimage highlights Turkey’s humanitarian approach.
“By providing permission for refugees to cross for religious purposes, Turkey shows it’s unwilling to further politicize what it sees as a human rights issue,” she told Arab News.
“The stance sends a positive message to the Muslim world, and speaks to Turkey’s overall strategy to gain credibility and popularity on the Arab street.”
Bardakci said exercising such soft power is a long-term investment toward becoming a regional power.
“Winning hearts and minds in the region can increase Turkey’s influence. When the crisis ends, Syrians will remember Turkey’s humanitarian foreign policy approach and efforts to help,” she added.
“Seemingly small, people-centric policies will create big impacts for Turkey’s long-term engagement in the region.”