As ties thaw with Saudi Arabia, thousands of Syrians fly there for haj

FILE PHOTO: Syrian Haj pilgrims heading to Mecca wait to board an airplane at Beirut international airport

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - For the first time in more than a decade, thousands of Syrians are travelling directly from government-held parts of Syria to Saudi Arabia for the Haj rituals, a signal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's gradual reintegration into the Arab fold.

After Syria's conflict erupted in 2011, Saudi Arabia cut ties with Assad and backed figures opposed to him - including by granting Syria's opposition thousands of visas to be distributed among Syrian pilgrims in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.

But Riyadh re-established ties with Assad last year and in May appointed its first envoy to Syria since the rift.

Direct flights also resumed, allowing pilgrims to head straight from Damascus to Jeddah to perform the Haj, considered a religious duty for all Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime if they are capable.

‮"‬I'm extremely happy. I still can't believe that I will participate in Haj," Berlanta Dimashqiya, an 84-year-old resident of Damascus, said.

While some Syrians living in government-held areas had been able to attend the Haj in past years by taking flights with layovers, such long trips had proved too strenuous for many elderly people.

Huda Abu Sha'ar said she had felt a "big joy" when she heard direct flights had restarted. She had carefully prepared her bag, including a sheet of paper with a long list of prayers that her relatives has asked her to make on their behalf in the holy city of Mecca.

At least 7,000 Syrians have already flown to Mecca since the flights resumed, Bassem Mansour, the director-general of the Syrian Civil Aviation authority, said.

"Our equipment and airports are safe, our airstrips are good, and our planes are good," Mansour told Reuters.

Damascus International Airport has been hit by suspected Israeli air strikes repeatedly in recent years, part of Israel's campaign against Syrian installations used by Tehran for weapons transfers.

(Reporting by Kinda Makieh and Firas Makdesi; Writing by Maya Gebeily; Editing by Andrew Heavens)