With the approach of Eid al-Adha on November 6th, caravans of Lebanese pilgrims have begun their journey to Medina to perform the hajj rituals.
Six thousand Muslims in Lebanon obtained visas to Saudi Arabia; 4,000 visas were split evenly between Sunni and Shia citizens, and 2,000 were granted to Palestinian residents.
Haj Abdul Ghani Harb and his wife Mahassin were among those selected to perform hajj this year and are preparing to travel to Medina on Monday (October 31st).
"Being 76 years old, and my wife and I having completed all our responsibilities toward our four children, we decided to carry out this religious duty. We submitted an application to join the Sultan Mohammed al-Fatih campaign, an initiative led by the Irshad Foundation. Our application was one of 24,000 that were submitted to the Committee for Hajj Affairs, and my wife and I were very happy when we learned that ours was accepted," Harb told Al-Shorfa.
"I have been mentally preparing myself for hajj by asking forgiveness from all of the people in my life with whom I was estranged or in dispute with because the goal of hajj is repentance and a complete hajj is rewarded with paradise."
As for hajj expenses, Harb said it costs $6,000 per person, which covers tickets, accommodations, transportation, ritual clothing, animal sacrifice, visits to the holy sites, performing the ritual hajj acts such as the Tawaf and the Umrah, and running between the hills of Safa and Marwah. The expenses do not include food.
The Sultan Mohammed al-Fatih campaign is one of 25 organised campaigns this year in Lebanon for individuals planning to take the hajj. Several Islamic foundations organise these campaigns, while official procedures pertaining to hajj are handled of by the Committee for Hajj Affairs, which is supervised by the Lebanese cabinet.
The Saudi embassy in Lebanon issued a statement in September 2010 declaring a series of procedures approved by the Saudi government. One of the procedures limits the number of hajj pilgrims to the proportion of each country's population size.
"As a committee, we are obliged to abide by the procedures which were approved by the governments of Lebanon and Saudi Arabia," said Sheikh Ibrahim Itani, chairman of the Committee for Hajj Affairs.
Sheikh Itani told Al-Shorfa the committee received 24,000 applications for this year's hajj season, and only 6,000 were accepted. Muslim clerics and administrative delegations are among the group of accepted applicants.
Asked about the limited number of acceptances, Itani blames this on "not receiving a Saudi incentive to accept more pilgrims than our official allotment allows because of construction work and expansion on the Kaaba."
Some Lebanese travellers were initially concerned when reports surfaced that Saudi Oger, a construction and facilities management company owned by former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, would not be helping with this year's hajj season.
Itani said such reports are baseless and that employees from Saudi Oger are on the ground at Jeddah airport.
"They help us, and we have worked with them for over 25 years now," Itani said.
Middle East Airlines is flying pilgrims from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia. As per Committee of Hajj Affairs requirements, each traveller will be provided with a piece of red hand luggage imprinted with green cedar tree.
Nizar Khoury, head of commercial affairs for the airline, told Al-Shorfa, "Our company has taken all the necessary measures to ensure the safe transportation of all the pilgrims to Medina and Jeddah as is our custom every year. We increased the number of flights to the two cities. There are currently more than seven additional chartered flights daily in addition to the ones already scheduled that are flying Lebanese pilgrims."