WASHINGTON: American Muslims in the US state of Virginia who were due to leave for Haj missed their flight to Saudi Arabia because customs officials seized their passports.

The group, a total of 17, found it had to delay its journey to Jeddah after a UPS package containing pilgrims’ travel documents was seized by US Customs and Border Protection.

All but one of the pilgrims missed their scheduled outbound flight, Raffi Uddin Ahmed, vice president of Al-Noor Mosque in northern Virginia and Manassas-based Muslim Association of Virginia, told reporters. All in the group have since arrived and are currently performing their Haj.

Leaders in the mosque told reporters that the pilgrims planned their trip to Saudi Arabia for months. They had taken classes on the pilgrimage and promised to make prayers for friends and relatives. A California travel agency had arranged their tickets and gotten visas for their passports, shipping them overnight via UPS.

It took three days to track down the passports. At first, UPS said the package was lost. On Friday, hours before the group was scheduled to depart, the group learned that the package had been seized.

By the time the documents were released by federal authorities on Saturday, the travelers had missed their flight.

“Grown men were crying,” said Ahmed. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Who knows if we’ll be alive next year, and if they miss out on this important tenet of their religion, they may not have another chance.

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

Fortunately, the story has a happy ending.

After trying, and failing, to get flights over the weekend, members of the group who are members of Ahmed’s mosque and most of whom are US citizens, learned Sunday night that the customs agency would buy them replacement outbound tickets leaving Monday night, at a total cost of $34,000. Saudi Arabian Airlines has agreed to honor the original return flights, he said.

Ahmed said the group was “overjoyed” to be leaving, but added that many in the community were questioning why the passports were delayed in the first place. “Some people made a comment that if that package had had ‘John Smith’ written on it, would that have been held?” he said. “I think UPS security may be targeting these packages and may be turning them over to the customs agency.”

UPS spokeswoman Lynnette McIntire said: “We did inform the customer that that particular package had a ‘government seizure exception,’” adding that the company cooperates with government agencies on security matters.

Customs spokesman Lloyd Easterling said he could not comment on specific cases but said that the agency “is committed to facilitating safe and legitimate travel while ensuring the safety of the traveling public.”

Source: Arab News