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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - By Hassan Cheruppa
JEDDAH — The Hajj missions of foreign countries in the Kingdom are waiting for more clarity on the number of domestic pilgrims from their respective countries who can perform Hajj this year.
So far we have not received any information from the authorities about the number of pilgrims and we are expected to have a clear picture in the coming few days, consuls general of Indonesia, India and Pakistan, whose countries annually send the largest contingents of pilgrims, told Saudi Gazette.
They, however, hailed the Saudi government’s decision, saying that it is in the best interests of Saudi citizens, expatriates and Muslims from all over the world.
According to Tuesday’s announcement of Minister of Hajj and Umrah Muhammad Saleh Benten, a total of 10,000 domestic pilgrims will be allowed to perform Hajj this year in place of 2.5 million pilgrims last year, and this figure shows that one pilgrim out of every 250 gets the opportunity to perform the once-in-a-life time journey of the faithful.
In his announcement, Benten did not specify how the pilgrims would be selected. But he said the government would work with various diplomatic missions in the Kingdom to select foreign pilgrims residing in Saudi Arabia who qualify the health criteria.
India and Pakistan have announced their decision to refund the full amount of money paid by the Hajj applicants while Indonesia said that it will give the option for the pilgrims either to receive the money or keep it with the government with a priority to perform next year’s Hajj.
Pilgrims from these countries constitute nearly one-third of the total foreign pilgrims, with their numbers crossed 620,000 last year. According to the figures of the Saudi General Authority for Statistics, a total of 2,489,406 pilgrims performed Hajj in 2019, of which 1,855,027 came from abroad and 634,379 were from within the Kingdom. The foreign pilgrims also included more than 171,000 pilgrims who came from Indonesia, Pakistan, Tunisia, Malaysia and Bangladesh via the Makkah Route Initiative.
Saudi Arabia announced that only a very limited number of Saudi citizens and expatriates currently living in the Kingdom would be allowed to make the pilgrimage and that it has barred foreign pilgrims from performing Hajj this year, in a bid to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
Minister Benten announced the decision on Monday, Dhul Qada one, the day when the annual Hajj season begins with arrival of the first batches of pilgrims at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah and Prince Muhammad International Airport in Madinah.
This was for the first time in the history of modern Saudi Arabia — since its unification by its founder King Abdulaziz — foreign pilgrims are being barred from performing their annual spiritual journey. The decision has been taken to ensure Hajj is performed in a safe manner from a public health perspective while observing all preventative measures and the necessary social distancing protocols to protect human beings from the risks associated with this pandemic and in accordance with the teachings of Islam in safeguarding the lives of human beings.
The decision comes as Saudi Arabia grapples with a major spike in infections, which have now risen to more than 164,000 cases with more than 1,340 deaths. The annual Hajj typically packs millions of pilgrims into congested holy sites and could be a major source of contagion.
Consul General of Indonesia Eko Hartono told Saudi Gazette that the Hajj mission will make the necessary arrangements, in coordination with the ministry for the pilgrimage of its chosen domestic pilgrims.
“Since the outbreak of coronavirus early in March, the Saudi government had informed us not to sign any contracts related to pilgrims’ accommodation, transportation, and catering and therefore we had not paid money for any stakeholders of Hajj operation in the Kingdom.” While announcing the decision to cancel Hajj pilgrimage of 2020, Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi described it on June 2 as “a truly difficult decision for us to make and we know many people are upset.”
The consul general noted that the Indonesian government announced the cancellation of Hajj pilgrimage in the first week of June and some other countries such as Malaysia Singapore followed the suit. Malaysia and Singapore have the quotas of 31,600 and 900 respectively. Hartono said that a total of 231,000 pilgrims performed Hajj last year, with an additional quota of 10,000 pilgrims. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, is supposed to have sent the largest contingent of 221,000 pilgrims this year.
India’s Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said on Tuesday that the government has decided that pilgrims from India will not travel to Saudi Arabia for Hajj 2020 after the Kingdom conveyed its decision in this regard. The decision was taken after Minister Benten telephoned him on Monday night and suggested not to send pilgrims from India for Hajj this year, he told reporters.
Naqvi said 213,000 applications had been received for this year’s Hajj and the process to refund the full amount of money deposited by the applicants without any deduction has been started immediately. The money will be refunded through online Direct Benefit Transfer mode into bank accounts of applicants, he said, adding this will be the first time since Independence that pilgrims from India will not be going for Hajj due to the unprecedented situation posed by the pandemic.
Speaking to Saudi Gazette, Indian Consul General Mohammed Noor Rahman Sheikh said that the Hajj Mission is ready to make all the arrangements for the domestic pilgrims who are expected to get permission to perform Hajj after ensuring compliance of preventive protocols. “We are awaiting the information from the ministry with regard to this matter.
In the first week of March, Minister Benten wrote to Naqvi to keep on hold all the Hajj arrangements and not to make any commitments,” he said while noting that though some buildings were selected and tenders were invited, no payment was made as E-Path system had not become functional for the Hajj at the time of the outbreak of the pandemic. “Though we did not handle domestic pilgrims, we started updating the data of domestic pilgrims who obtained Hajj permit in our mobile app as per instructions from the ministry following the Mina stampede in 2015,” said Sheikh, who is leaving the Kingdom after a brilliant career in serving pilgrims for eight years in a row in his stint as consul of Hajj and consul general.
On his part, Khalid Majid, consul general of Pakistan, noted that the government of Pakistan has already announced that it will respect and follow whatever decisions the government of Saudi Arabia takes in the regard.
Minister Benten had telephoned his Pakistani counterpart Pir Noor-ul-Haq Qadri to inform him about the decision regarding Hajj. Subsequently, an emergency meeting has been called to review the latest development during which the mechanism for the return of payments to those who had registered themselves for the government’s Hajj scheme would be discussed,” according to Imran Siddiqui, spokesman of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony.
Pakistani envoy, diplomatic officials and the Pakistan Hajj Directorate in the Kingdom would represent the country this year, he added. According to a report, a total 179,210 Pakistanis had registered to perform Hajj this year, including 107,526 under the government scheme and 71,684 under the private scheme.
Speaking to Saudi Gazette, Khalid Majid appreciated the Saudi decision for strict observance of health safety standards and the placement of elaborate arrangements and preventive protocols for the upcoming Hajj.
All these measures manifest the Saudi government’s utmost care and affection towards its citizens and the fellow Muslims,” he said. Majid emphasized that restricting the numbers of pilgrims to a bare minimum is a well-measured decision taken in the best health interest of pilgrims against the pandemic and the continued risk of its spread in crowded places or large gatherings. “The decision is also instrumental in removing the prevalent anxieties about the prospect of holding Hajj this year amid pandemic fears,” he added.
As for Bangladesh, it comes in the fourth position in the number of pilgrims. It is supposed to have sent 137,198 pilgrims, including 17,198 pilgrims under the government’s management and 120,000 under private management schemes.
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