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Travel & Holiday

Fewer places available for pilgrimage to Mecca

Just 680 this year; Saudi government not giving out extra 'goodwill visas'
The Straits Times - September 12, 2012
By: Maria Almenoar
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Fewer places available for pilgrimage to Mecca Haj pilgrims granted visas last year. Singapore was given 1,500 goodwill visas last year, but the Saudi government wants to limit places this year due to works near the pilgrimage sites. -- BERITA HARIAN FILE PHOTO

FEWER places will be available for Muslims planning to go on this year's haj or pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Saudi government is granting Singapore and other countries visas for 0.1per cent of their Muslim populations, but it is not giving out extra "goodwill visas".

For Singapore's Muslim community, this means there will be only 680 available spots this year.

Last year, Singapore was given an extra 1,500 goodwill visas, on top of the 680 visas.

Goodwill visas were generally given out by Saudi Arabia's government in previous years. This then allowed the authorities to offer pilgrims a chance to fulfil their haj earlier than expected.

Officially, Muslims who register with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) for visas to perform the haj have to wait five years before it is their turn. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the waiting period is 10 and 15 years respectively.

Muis yesterday said that the Saudi government had decided to limit the number of visitors this year due to redevelopment works near the pilgrimage sites.

These works, along with a rapid rise in the global Muslim population, will result in a space constraint, said Muis.

Despite fewer visas being available, the 389 applicants scheduled to perform their haj this year will be able to do so.

In addition, 291 applicants for last year's haj who were rejected will also be granted visas.

Last year, due to a mix-up in the processing order, the Saudi Embassy issued visas to appeal cases ahead of those who were rightfully registered to go. This resulted in 316 applicants being refused entry.

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was making an appeal for more visas on behalf of Singapore's Muslim community to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

Speaking to reporters at a doorstop yesterday, Dr Yaacob said: "One day, those works will be completed and the spaces will be available. I am hopeful that we will be able to make appeals in the future for an increase in quota for Muslim pilgrims in Singapore."

He urged Muslims to be patient and assured them that Muis was doing its best to fulfil all the commitments it has made.

The haj is one of the five basic requirements of Islam, which all Muslims must carry out at least once in their lifetime, if they can afford to do so. It is performed as early as one month in advance of Hari Raya Haji, which falls on Oct26 this year.

Mr Mohamed Roslan Jaafar, honorary secretary of the Association of Muslim Travel Agents of Singapore (Amtas) said that this was "sad and unexpected news".

There are 29 travel agents accredited by Muis to offer haj travel packages. "Haj packages are our bread and butter. With so few spaces each year we may have to consider offering other types of travel packages to stay in business," he said.

Photographer M.O. Salleh, 57, registered to attend the haj last year but was rejected.

Muis gave him a confirmation in January that he would be on the list of those heading for this year's haj.

"January was some time ago, so I'm not sure if I'm still eligible. If this year is not the year for me again, that is God's will and I will accept it," he said.

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