908 Nigerian female pilgrims held in Saudi Arabia
ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — The detention of hundreds of female Nigerian pilgrims heading to Mecca at Saudi Arabia's busiest airport over a rule requiring them to travel with a husband or male relative is threatening to bring a diplomatic dispute between the two nations.
Saudi authorities are holding 908 Nigerian women in poor conditions "with some needing urgent medical attention" at King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah and threatened to deport them, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria said in a report submitted to Nigerian lawmakers Wednesday.
The report said female pilgrims who had landed in a smaller airport in Medina had been unaffected.
However, Fuwaiba Muhammad, a pilgrim, told an Associated Press reporter at Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport in the northern Nigerian city of Kano that she had been deported Wednesday from the Saudi Arabian city of Medina, along with dozens of others.
Uba Mana, a spokesman for the National Hajj Commission, said no pilgrim had been deported by Saudi authorities yet, but that the commission had asked for female pilgrims who did not meet the Saudi immigration officials' requirements to temporarily be brought back to Nigeria to avoid deportations.
"Medina is a small airport," Mana said, "and if we allow people to get deported from there, the pilgrims won't be able to return to Saudi Arabia for another five years, and by no fault of their own," he said.
This is the first time pilgrims have faced the possibility of mass deportation over the male escort issue, the commission has said. According to the report, an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Nigeria exempts female pilgrims from requiring a male relative to escort them for the mandatory Hajj pilgrimage, which costs about $4,000 per person.
Until now, state pilgrimage officials had been allowed to stand in the place of a male relative or husband. Muhammad, for instance, said that she had been traveling with a Hajj official who is not her relative.
But Saudi authorities have proven much stricter this year. They even stopped women who did travel with their husbands.
"Islam allows wives to bear the names of their parents and not necessarily that of their husbands," the report argued.
All able-bodied Muslims who can afford it are expected to perform Hajj at least once in their lives, leading people to go to great lengths to make the trip.
Some pilgrims sell their cows and jewelry and others save for months or years to pay their own way to Mecca. Muslim philanthropists and politicians in Nigeria will typically sponsor some pilgrims annually.
Mana had said Monday that the escort situation had been resolved through diplomatic channels, but the commission's report Wednesday said Saudi authorities have "remained adamant."
The report said top Nigerian officials had held meetings with Saudi officials in Nigeria and in Saudi Arabia in a bid to come to reach a compromise.
Nigeria's Foreign Ministry sent a letter of undertaking guaranteeing the return of the female pilgrims after Hajj, it added, but Saudi authorities still did not release them.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan put together a high-profile delegation late Wednesday to travel to Saudi Arabia "as soon as an appointment is finalized with the appropriate authority," a government statement said.
Saudi officials could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, and Saudi Arabia are both members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an umbrella organization representing 57 Muslim nations.
Associated Press writers Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, and Salisu Rabiu in Kano, contributed to this report.