In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia
Indonesian pilgrims depart for Hajj, June 4, 2022. (AFP Photo)
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Updated 27 June 2022

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia
  • For centuries, Aceh was the last Southeast Asian port of call for Hajj, known as the ‘Porch of Makkah’
  • Saudi Arabia was one the biggest single aid donors when a tsunami devastated Aceh in 2004 

JAKARTA: As they leave for Hajj, pilgrims from Aceh prepare for a transformative and spiritually moving experience, which for many of them also rekindles a special, centuries-old connection they feel for Saudi Arabia.

The westernmost province of Indonesia, Aceh is the site of the earliest Muslim kingdoms in Southeast Asia, which began to form in the late 13th century. 

It was the last Southeast Asian port of call for pilgrimages to the holiest city of Islam, and in the 17th century court chronicles of Aceh rulers began to refer to it as “Serambi Makkah,” or “Porch of Makkah” — a term that is still used by the Acehnese today.

Now, the opportunity to depart for the real Makkah and perform Hajj is something they look forward to for years, if not decades.

“In Aceh it’s about 30 to 31 years,” Mizaj Iskandar, who has been tasked by the local government with organizing the pilgrimage, told Arab News.

“They are certainly very emotional because they have been waiting for so long,” he said. “By the time they receive the call, they must be moved, happy, and in disbelief. All these emotions you can find in almost all the participants.”

One of the pilgrims, 58-year-old Kamariah from Aceh Besar regency, could not find the words to describe how moved she was that she would be able to see the Kaaba at the center of the Grand Mosque, Masjid Al-Haram, in Makkah.

“I don’t know how to express how happy I am to see Kaaba,” she said. “It feels like I will never want to leave it.”

Like other pilgrims, Kamariah has been preparing for the journey, especially spiritually.

“Before we go to the holy land, we must have already cleansed our hearts,” she said. “We hope to become good Hajj pilgrims.”

One of Islam’s five pillars of faith, the Hajj was restricted over pandemic fears to only 1,000 people living in Saudi Arabia in 2020. In 2021, the Kingdom limited the pilgrimage to 60,000 domestic participants, compared with the pre-pandemic 2.5 million.

But this year, as it has already lifted most of its COVID-19 curbs, Saudi Arabia will welcome 1 million pilgrims from abroad. More than 100,000 of them are arriving from Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. And among them, 2,022 are from Aceh.

“My family and I have not stopped expressing our gratitude to Allah, because we have been called this year to go for Hajj,” Amalia Sabrina, a doctor from Sigli town in the Pidie regency of Aceh, told Arab News.

“I once had a dream of the event that has now taken place, and it feels almost like deja vu to be in the same position as in that dream.”

She arrived in the Kingdom last week and was enjoying the hospitality with which pilgrims have been received.

“Whether it’s the hotel service, food, laundry, service at the shops, or the people,” she said. “Everyone has been friendly.”

Sabrina’s younger brother Miftahul Hamdi, a football player, was also grateful to be in the Kingdom.

“I am so grateful to get this opportunity to go for Hajj this year,” he said. “Aceh is often referred to as a ‘Makkah porch,’ so being able to go for Hajj here is just very fulfilling and makes me feel very grateful.” 

The enthusiasm Acehnese have for the Hajj pilgrimage, a sacred milestone for Muslims, is reinforced by their historical links to Saudi Arabia.

Marzuki Abubakar, researcher and lecturer at Ar-Raniry State Islamic University in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, said that Islam in Aceh has revolved around Arabia ever since its advent in Southeast Asia. The coastal region also connected the rest of the islands that constitute present-day Indonesia with the Middle East.

“Aceh was a transit point for Hajj pilgrims to go to Makkah from all over the archipelago,” he said. “There’s amazing enthusiasm among Acehnese to go for Hajj.”

What has recently strengthened the bond was the help the Acehnese received from the Kingdom during one of the darkest periods in the region’s history — the 2004 tsunami.

“They are emotionally attached to Saudi Arabia because of the help they received after the tsunami,” Abubakar told Arab News.

Saudi Arabia was one the biggest single donors to the relief response, when the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami devastated Aceh, killing more than 160,000 people — nearly 5 percent of the local population.

Saudi charities helped rebuild houses, medical facilities and the 17th-century Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh — a symbol of religion and identity of the Acehnese.

Nurlinda Nurdin, a radio reporter from Banda Aceh, who performed the pilgrimage in 2006 and spent two months covering Hajj preparations in Saudi Arabia, said that before the journey she would often fall ill, but all her ailments were gone when she was there.

“When I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I was always healthy. I was fully working, didn’t feel exhausted at all, I was enjoying myself, I was comfortable,” she told Arab News.

“I just felt super close, as if my house was just right behind the mountain. My heart was just at ease.”

Britain, Denmark contribute more money and weapons to Ukraine

Britain, Denmark contribute more money and weapons to Ukraine
Updated 1 min 45 sec ago

Britain, Denmark contribute more money and weapons to Ukraine

Britain, Denmark contribute more money and weapons to Ukraine
  • Britain to send more multiple-launch rocket systems and precision guided M31A1 missiles
  • Denmark will increase its financial aid to Ukraine by $114 million

COPENHAGEN: Britain and Denmark will provide more financial and military aid to Ukraine, they said on Thursday as European defense ministers met in Copenhagen to discuss long-term support for the country’s defense against Russia’s invasion.
Britain, which has already donated advanced weapons systems to Ukraine and given thousands of its troops military training, said it would send more multiple-launch rocket systems.
It would also donate a “significant number” of precision guided M31A1 missiles that can strike targets up to 80km away.
“This latest tranche of military support will enable the armed forces of Ukraine to continue to defend against Russian aggression and the indiscriminate use of long-range artillery,” UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a statement.
“Our continued support sends a very clear message, Britain and the international community remain opposed to this illegal war and will stand shoulder-to-shoulder, providing defensive military aid to Ukraine to help them defend against Putin’s invasion.”
Denmark will increase its financial aid to Ukraine by 110 million euros ($114 million), Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said at a conference in Copenhagen hosted by Ukraine, Denmark and Britain.
“This is a war on the values that Europe and the free world are built upon ... Today we reaffirm our commitment to support of Ukraine,” she said.
The new measures will take Denmark’s total aid to Ukraine since the start of the war to more than $417 million (3 billion Danish crowns).
Just over half of the financial aid announced on Thursday will be spent on weapons procurement and support of weapons production. The rest will be spent on supplies of Danish weapons and military equipment, as well as military training.
The announcements come after the government in Kyiv repeatedly pleaded with the West to send more weapons, including long-range artillery, as it tries to turn the tide on Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.
Earlier this month, Ukraine said it had received another delivery of high-precision heavy weapons from Germany and the United States.
Moscow, which has accused the West of dragging out the conflict by giving Ukraine more arms, says it is conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine aimed at safeguarding Russia’s security against NATO expansion.

Antony Blinken visits Rwanda in testing moment for old US ally Paul Kagame

Antony Blinken visits Rwanda in testing moment for old US ally Paul Kagame
Updated 11 August 2022

Antony Blinken visits Rwanda in testing moment for old US ally Paul Kagame

Antony Blinken visits Rwanda in testing moment for old US ally Paul Kagame
  • Regional analysts expect US Secretary of State to privately exert pressure to stop Rwanda’s alleged support for the M23 rebel group

KIGALI: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on a visit to Kigali less than a week after it emerged United Nations experts had found “solid evidence” Rwanda has been interfering militarily in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Regional analysts expect Blinken, who arrived on Wednesday evening, to privately exert pressure to stop Rwanda’s alleged support for the M23 rebel group without immediately implementing sanctions or blocking military aid, as the United States did in similar circumstances in 2013.
A confidential report sent to the United Nations Security Council last week said Rwandan troops have been fighting alongside the M23 rebels in Congo, and that Kigali has been providing the group with weapons and support since November.
Rwanda’s government has said the UN findings, based on evidence including witness testimony and drone images, were false, and that the M23 was Congo’s responsibility.
The United States is a longstanding ally of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, but Blinken told reporters on Tuesday in Kinshasa he was very concerned about “credible reports” Rwanda has provided support to M23.
Last year the US administration gave Rwanda $147 million in bilateral assistance, and $500,000 for peace and security.
“Rwanda’s most important export is its reputation; that’s what attracts Starbucks, that’s what attracts Bill Gates and that reputation is being battered at the moment,” said Jason Stearns, director of New York University’s Congo Research Group.
Blinken’s visit “will lead to a re-evaluation of what’s happening on the ground,” Stearns told Reuters by telephone.
A statement from Rwanda’s foreign affairs ministry on Blinken’s visit said the country was committed to addressing security challenges in the Great Lakes Region.
Rwanda has earned recognition for its stability, ease of doing business and developmental gains since the 1994 genocide, but Kagame has also drawn criticism for cracking down on opponents at home and abroad.
The US top diplomat has said he would raise the fate of Paul Rusesabagina, a US resident who was sentenced by Kigali court to 25 years in prison on terrorism charges.
Rusesabagina refused to take part in what he called a “sham” trial, saying he had been kidnapped and brought to Kigali against his will.
Rwanda’s foreign affairs ministry said Rusesabagina’s arrest and conviction were lawful under Rwandan and international law.

South Korea, China clash over US missile shield, complicating conciliation

South Korea, China clash over US missile shield, complicating conciliation
Updated 11 August 2022

South Korea, China clash over US missile shield, complicating conciliation

South Korea, China clash over US missile shield, complicating conciliation
  • Disagreement over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system emerged after South Korea’s foreign minister China visit this week

SEOUL: China and South Korea clashed on Thursday over a US missile defense shield, threatening to undermine efforts by the new government in Seoul to overcome longstanding security differences.
The disagreement over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system emerged after an apparently smooth first visit to China by South Korea’s foreign minister this week.
China, contending THAAD’s powerful radar could peer into its airspace, curbed trade and cultural imports after Seoul announced its deployment in 2016, dealing a major blow to relations.
South Korea’s presidential office said on Thursday the system stationed in the country is a means of self-defense, according to a briefing transcript, after Beijing demanded Seoul not deploy additional batteries and limit the use of existing ones.
President Yoon Suk-yeol, seeing the system as key to countering North Korean missiles, has vowed to abandon the previous government’s promises not to increase THAAD deployments, participate in a US-led global missile shield or create a trilateral military alliance involving Japan.
On the campaign trail, the conservative Yoon pledged to buy another THAAD battery, but since taking office in May, his government has focussed on what officials call “normalizing” the operation of the existing, US-owned and operated system.
South Korea’s Foreign Minister Park Jin and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, meeting on Tuesday, explored ways to reopen denuclearization negotiations with North Korea and resume cultural exports, such as K-pop music and movies, to China.
A Wang spokesman said on Wednesday the two had “agreed to take each other’s legitimate concerns seriously and continue to prudently handle and properly manage this issue to make sure it does not become a stumbling block to the sound and steady growth of bilateral relations.”
The Chinese spokesman told a briefing the THAAD deployment in South Korea “undermines China’s strategic security interest.”
Park, however, told Wang that Seoul would not abide by the 2017 agreement, called the “Three Nos,” as it is not a formal pledge or agreement, South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
China also insists that South Korea abide by “one restriction” — limiting the use of existing THAAD batteries. Seoul has never acknowledged that element, but on Wednesday, Wang’s spokesman emphasised that China attaches importance to the position of “three Nos and one restriction.”
During Park’s visit to the eastern port city of Qingdao, the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times praised Yoon for showing “independent diplomacy and rationality toward China” by not meeting face to face with visiting US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But the newspaper warned that the THAAD issue is “a major hidden danger that cannot be avoided in China-South Korea ties.”

Taiwan holds military drill after China repeats threats

Taiwan holds military drill after China repeats threats
Updated 11 August 2022

Taiwan holds military drill after China repeats threats

Taiwan holds military drill after China repeats threats
  • Taiwan accused China of using US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit as an excuse to kickstart drills
  • Military played down Taiwan's exercises’ significance, saying they were not in response to China’s war games

TAIPEI: Taiwan’s army held another live-fire drill Thursday after Beijing ended its largest-ever military exercises around the island and repeated threats to bring the self-ruled democracy under its control.
Beijing has raged at a trip to Taiwan last week by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — the highest-ranking elected American official to visit in decades — staging days of air and sea drills around the island that raised tensions to their highest level in years.
Taiwan has accused China of using the Pelosi visit as an excuse to kickstart drills that would allow it to rehearse for an invasion.
Lou Woei-jye, spokesman for Taiwan’s Eighth Army Corps, told AFP its forces fired howitzers and target flares as part of the defensive drill on Thursday morning.
The exercise in Taiwan’s southernmost county Pingtung began at 0830 am (0030 GMT) and lasted about an hour, he said.
Artillery tucked in from the coast was lined up side by side, with armed soldiers in units firing the howitzers out to sea one after the other, a live stream showed.
Taiwan held a similar drill on Tuesday in Pingtung. Both involved hundreds of troops, the military said.
The military has played down the exercises’ significance, saying they were already scheduled and were not in response to China’s war games.
“We have two goals for the drills, the first is to certify the proper condition of the artillery and their maintenance condition and the second is to confirm the results of last year,” Lou said, referring to annual drills.
The latest exercise came after China’s military indicated its own drills had come to an end Wednesday, saying its forces “successfully completed various tasks” in the Taiwan Strait while vowing to continue patrolling its waters.
But in the same announcement, China added that it would “continue to carry out military training and prepare for war.”
In a separate white paper published Wednesday, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said Beijing would “not renounce the use of force” against its neighbor and reserved “the option of taking all necessary measures.”
“We are ready to create vast space for peaceful reunification, but we will leave no room for separatist activities in any form,” it said in the paper.
China last issued a white paper on Taiwan in 2000.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry on Thursday joined its top policymaking body on China in rejecting the “one country, two systems” model that Beijing has proposed for the island.
“China’s whole statement absolutely goes against the cross-strait status quo and its reality,” ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou told a press conference.
“China is using US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit as an excuse to destroy the status quo and taking the opportunity to make trouble, attempting to create a new normal to intimidate the Taiwanese people.”
“One country, two systems” refers to the model under which Hong Kong and Macau were promised a degree of autonomy under Chinese rule.
Taiwan routinely stages military drills simulating defense against a Chinese invasion, and last month practiced repelling attacks from the sea in a “joint interception operation” as part of its largest annual exercises.
In response to the Chinese military revealing it was bringing drills to an end Wednesday, Taiwan’s army said it would “adjust how we deploy our forces... without letting our guard down.”
Since the late 1990s, the island has transformed from an autocracy into a vibrant democracy, and a more distinct Taiwanese identity has solidified.
Relations between the two sides have significantly worsened since Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan’s president in 2016.
Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party do not consider Taiwan a part of China.
Their platform falls under China’s broad definition of Taiwanese separatism, which includes those who advocate for the island to have an identity separate from the mainland.

Alleged British Daesh ‘Beatle’ charged after arrest in UK: police

Alleged British Daesh ‘Beatle’ charged after arrest in UK: police
Updated 11 August 2022

Alleged British Daesh ‘Beatle’ charged after arrest in UK: police

Alleged British Daesh ‘Beatle’ charged after arrest in UK: police
  • The man was reported to have been arrested after landing at Luton airport on a flight from Turkey, where he had been serving a prison sentence for terrorism offenses

LONDON: A British man accused of being part of a Daesh kidnap-and-murder cell known as the “Beatles” has been charged with terrorism offenses after returning to the UK, police said Thursday.
“A 38-year-old man has been charged with various terrorism offenses following an investigation by the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command,” police said in a statement.
The Metropolitan Police, which leads anti-terror investigations in the UK, officially named the man as Aine Davis and said he has been remanded in police custody.
They said they arrested Davis after he landed at Luton airport on a flight from Turkey.
The suspect, who does not have a fixed address, was set to appear at a court in central London on Thursday morning.
He was allegedly a member of the Daesh cell, which held dozens of foreign hostages in Syria between 2012 and 2015 and was known to their captives as the “Beatles” because of their British accents.
The four members of the “Beatles” are accused of abducting at least 27 journalists and relief workers from the United States, Britain, Europe, New Zealand, Russia and Japan.
They were all allegedly involved in the murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller.
The quartet allegedly tortured and killed the four American victims, including by beheading, and Daeshreleased videos of the murders for propaganda purposes.
Alexanda Kotey, a 38-year-old former British national extradited from the UK to the US in 2020 to face charges there, pleaded guilty to his role in the deaths last September and was sentenced to life in prison in April.
El Shafee Elsheikh, 34, another former British national also extradited to the US at the same time, was found guilty of all charges in April, and will be sentenced next week.
The other “Beatles” executioner, Mohamed Emwazi, was killed by a US drone in Syria in 2015.
Elsheikh and Kotey were captured in January 2018 by a Kurdish militia in Syria and turned over to US forces in Iraq before being sent to Britain.
They were eventually flown to Virginia in 2020 to face charges of hostage-taking, conspiracy to murder US citizens and supporting a foreign terrorist organization.
Davis served a seven-and-a-half-year sentence in Turkey for membership in the terrorist group, according to reports.
In 2014, his wife Amal El-Wahabi became the first person in Britain to be convicted of funding Daesh militants after trying to send 20,000 euros — worth $25,000 at the time — to him in Syria.
She was jailed for 28 months and seven days following a trial in which Davis was described as a drug dealer before he went to Syria to fight with Daesh.