Saudi Arabia's military invites British soldiers to perform Umrah in Makkah

Nine soldiers are travelling to the Kingdom during Ramadan at the invitation of Riyadh's armed forces

epaselect epa06178940 An aerial view of the holy Kaaba and the Grand Mosque compound during the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 02 September 2017. Around 2.6 million muslim are expected to attend this year's Hajj pilgrimage, which is highlighted by the Day of Arafah, one day prior to Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Adha is the holiest of the two Muslims holidays celebrated each year, it marks the yearly Muslim pilgrimage (Hajj) to visit Mecca, the holiest place in Islam. Muslims slaughter a sacrificial animal and split the meat into three parts, one for the family, one for friends and relatives, and one for the poor and needy.  EPA/MAST IRHAM
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Ramadan will be particularly special for a group of British soldiers this year, as they are set to make Umrah to Makkah at the invitation of Saudi Arabia.

The participants have arrived in Jeddah from the UK and are being hosted by the local army’s religious directorate, along with other troops from armed forces from around the world. One of the British group’s civilian chaplains and an officer were chosen, alongside eight soldiers wo were selected via a lottery system to ensure fairness.

Cpl Sohail Ifraz recounted he was “a bit shell shocked” to hear his name had been picked.

“I felt so privileged to kind of get the opportunity to go to the blessed lands of Saudi Arabia," he said. "Spiritually it's a place that every Muslim across the world have a connection to. It doesn't matter where you are in the world, you have a connection to that one place because you know, everyone prays to that location, towards that direction everyday.”

The party left the UK on May 2 and are due to return this week after visiting Makkah and Madinah to complete the pilgrimage.

The trip is running over Ramadan, which is making it extra special, the soldiers say.

“The opportunity to observe a part of the month of Ramadan in the holy lands, you couldn't ask for a better Ramadan,” said Cpl Ifraz.

Not only is the trip an opportunity for the armed forces personnel to deepen their connection to their faith, it brings opportunities to share information about Islam with their non-Muslim colleagues.

The army Umrah has sparked curiosity, prompting questions not just about the journey but about halal meals, Ramadan and other Muslim practices.

Cpl Ifraz, who was awarded an MBE in 2018, says his seniors have asked him to explain different elements of his faith to further their understanding.

"They’re constantly asking questions, like ‘why do you pray towards that one location?’ Something that's as simple as that.”

“I go through all the motions and tell people that this is what we do, why we do it. And I think that it starts at that level. One soldier tells four or five other soldiers, and then it branches from there. That's how everyone would get a better understanding of not just our faith but all faiths.”

Muslims are still underrepresented in the armed forces, making up just 0.4 per cent of the UK regular forces, compared to just under five per cent of the British population, according to April 2017 Ministry of Defence figures.

The army has made efforts to attract recruits from Muslim communities, including a £1.6m campaign on belonging that featured Cpl Ifraz.

It is important for youngsters considering the army of all backgrounds to see that it offers myriad opportunities as well as allowing you to practice your faith or be a member of a political party, Sgt Dorian John says .

“You just have to understand that and it's people like us doing these things that can tell people what it is that the army offers and why they can see the army as a career or even just an adventure,” he said.

Sgt John was born on the island of Dominica and joined the forces in 2003. He has been deployed to Afghanistan twice and Iraq once, and worked for a variety of army units. He says being a Muslim in the army has improved over the years, particularly with the publication of official guidance on Ramadan in 2010 to help his colleagues and superiors understand the fasting period and give instructions on how to treat soldiers partaking in Ramadan.

Measures include exempting soldiers from arduous physical activities, making time for prayer and access to one of the two army Imams for theological guidance.

Private Abubakarr Mahmoud is the first reservist to ever go on the pilgrimage trip, which has been running twice a year since 2016, covering both Hajj and Umrah. He praises the army's commitment to ensuring he can practice his faith, from pastoral support to a wide variety of halal meals provided to army bases across the globe.

“If you are a Muslim and you go on tour, a helicopter brings in the food I have to eat,” he says.

“Also, the Imam is available. If I need any help or spiritual support, I can talk to him and he'll guide me through.”

Favourite halal rations among those taking the Umrah journey include vegetarian tikka masala and lamb tagine, which are apparently so delicious that non-Muslim colleagues are trying to get hold of them.

“We still have a way to go in terms of the journey that we're on in terms of diversity and inclusion,” said Major Naveed Muhammad MBE, who is organising the trip.

“But we're in a good place and, and hopefully with events like this and the guidance that we have, we're continuing on the correct trajectory.”