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Travel delays for Northern Virginia Muslims heading to Mecca

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 12:04 AM

For months, the 17 Northern Virginians had excitedly prepared for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is sacred to devout Muslims.

They had saved thousands of dollars for a package trip to Saudi Arabia, taken classes on the pilgrimage and promised to make prayers for friends and relatives. A California travel agency had arranged their tickets and gotten the visas for their passports, shipping them overnight via UPS.

But according to the travelers, the passports, which were supposed to have all been delivered last Tuesday, never arrived.

"The UPS guy came," said Cemal Gumus, the imam at Dar AlNoor mosque in Manassas and one of the travelers. "I said, 'Man, where is my package?' He said, 'No, there is no package for you.' "

It took three days to track it down, Gumus said. At first, UPS said the package was lost. On Friday, hours before the group was scheduled to depart from Dulles International Airport, the group learned that the package had been seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

After a flurry of phone calls, the passports were released and arrived Saturday. But by then, all but one of the travelers had missed their flight.

"Grown men were crying," said Rafi Uddin Ahmed, vice president of the mosque and of the Manassas-based Muslim Association of Virginia. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Who knows if we'll be alive next year, and if they miss out on this one important tenet of their religion, they may not have another chance."

The hajj season comes once a year, and there is a limited window to enter Saudi Arabia before entries are cut off. The pilgrimage attracts more than 2 million Muslims; about 10,000 American Muslims go each year.

After trying, and failing, to get onto flights over the weekend, the Northern Virginia travelers, who are members of the mosque and most of whom are U.S. citizens, learned Sunday night that the customs agency would buy them replacement outbound tickets leaving Monday night, at a total cost of $34,000, Ahmed said. Saudi Airlines had agreed to honor the original return flights, he said.

"People have to save up for years in order to make their trip," he said. "Once they missed their flight, a lot of them could not afford to pay for another flight."

UPS spokeswoman Lynnette McIntire said, "We did inform the customer that that particular package had a 'government seizure exception.' " She declined to define the term. "We cooperate with government agencies on security matters," she said.

Customs spokesman Lloyd Easterling said he could not comment on a specific case but said in a statement that the agency "is committed to facilitating safe and legitimate travel while ensuring the safety of the traveling public." He would not comment on whether UPS regularly shares packages with the agency.

Gumus said the group was "overjoyed" to be leaving. But many in the community questioned the passports delay.

"Some people made a comment that if that package had had 'John Smith' written on there, would that have been held?" Ahmed asked. "I think UPS security may be targeting these packages and may be turning them over" to the customs agency.

The package's circuitous journey, and the reasons for it, baffled the travelers, who include government workers and elderly homemakers, and dismayed Muslim civic leaders.

"We need to get to the bottom of who is flagging these packages en route, and why, and whether it's some overreaction to the recent packages coming out from Yemen," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He said his office had learned of at least three other instances of Muslims' passports failing to arrive via UPS in the past week.

"The hajj is a test of patience," Ahmed said, noting that it can be difficult navigating the crowds in Mecca. "You go through a lot of hardship, so a lot of them have been practicing this. But they have been on an emotional roller coaster."

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