Hajj now ‘more affordable’ for Muslim Filipinos

The annual Hajj pilgrimage is now “more affordable” for Muslim Filipinos thanks to reforms instituted by the Philippines’ National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) and successful talks with Saudi Arabia, said NCMF Secretary Saidamen Pangarungan. (AFP)
Updated 23 February 2019
0

Hajj now ‘more affordable’ for Muslim Filipinos

  • Steps taken by the Philippine government have resulted in an “unprecedented” reduction in Hajj fees and better accommodation for Filipino pilgrims
  • The reduced fees come with the entry of a third airline that will transport Filipino Hajj pilgrims, after the Kingdom agreed to waive its two-airline policy for the Philippines

MANILA: The annual Hajj pilgrimage is now “more affordable” for Muslim Filipinos thanks to reforms instituted by the Philippines’ National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) and successful talks with Saudi Arabia, said NCMF Secretary Saidamen Pangarungan.
Steps taken by the Philippine government have resulted in an “unprecedented” reduction in Hajj fees and better accommodation for Filipino pilgrims, he added.
In an advisory released earlier this month, the NCMF announced that starting this year, “there will be changes for the benefit of all intending pilgrims in the annual Hajj or pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.”
Among these changes is the assurance that Filipino pilgrims will only be accommodated in four- and five-star hotels in Madinah and Makkah, with adequate shuttle services to and from the places of Hajj rituals.
“Everyone is assured that the past experience of substandard hotel accommodations for Filipinos will never be experienced again,” said Pangarungan, who will serve as official head of the Philippine pilgrims’ delegation this year.
The reduced fees come with the entry of a third airline that will transport Filipino Hajj pilgrims, after the Kingdom agreed to waive its two-airline policy for the Philippines.
“Historically, only … Saudia Airlines and Philippine Airlines (PAL) were allowed as transportation of Filipino pilgrims,” said Pangarungan.
In January, he and other NCMF officials traveled to Saudi Arabia and met with Deputy Minister for Hajj and Umrah Dr. Sharief Housnie.
During the meeting, Pangarungan explained the financial limitations of Muslim Filipinos, and negotiated for the landing rights of another airline that will shuttle pilgrims from the Philippines. The Saudi government heeded the request.
Pangarungan said the airfare rates of the third airline, Oman Air, is significantly lower than both Saudia and PAL.
So if a pilgrim chooses to fly with Oman Air, the total Hajj fee will be 166,786 Philippine pesos ($3,204), compared with 197,000 pesos last year. Should a pilgrim choose Saudia, the total fee will be 185,336 pesos.
Also at the meeting, the NCMF got assurances that Filipino pilgrims would only be accommodated in four- or five-star hotels. This year, Saudi Arabia has allocated a quota of 8,000 Hajj visas for Filipino pilgrims.
Ebra Moxsir, president of the Imam Council of the Philippines (ICP), welcomed the changes, saying they will allow more Filipino Muslims to perform Hajj.
“We can’t expect everyone to be satisfied with these changes, but it’s still good news,” Moxsir told Arab News. “If you’re a Muslim who has the financial capability, it’s mandatory to perform Hajj even once in your life.”
Journalist Ali Macabalang, who has gone to Makkah twice to cover Hajj, said in the past, due to schemes by “some unscrupulous officials and individuals,” Filipino pilgrims had to pay more.
“While collected funds were enough to put them in good hotels, our pilgrims would end up in crowded dormitories … One room that could accommodate four people would have eight to 12 occupants,” Macabalang said.
“Each of the pilgrims paid for separate rooms … but they end up in cramped dormitories … So it’s really a welcome development what the present leadership is introducing this year.”
Huma Ahmad, who was among Filipino pilgrims last year, said the reduced fees are “good news for those who’ll join the Hajj this year. Hopefully it’ll be a success for all pilgrims.”
Of the estimated 10 million Muslims in the Philippines, on average 7,000 join the pilgrimage each year. Macabalang said the new changes will enable more fellow Muslim Filipinos to perform Hajj.
Some Filipino pilgrims even sell their property to raise funds to perform the pilgrimage, he added.
“It’s unfortunate that some unscrupulous individuals were using it (Hajj) to take advantage of the pilgrims,” he said.
Philippine pilgrims were almost barred from this year’s pilgrimage due to an NCMF debt of 11 million pesos owed to a Saudi tourism company that handled Hajj-related activities for Filipino pilgrims in 2017 and 2018.
Dimapuno Alonto Datu Ramos Jr., director of the NCMF bureau of external relations, said: “This debt, if it remained unpaid, would’ve been enough grounds to block all Philippine pilgrims from joining the Hajj.”
Pangarungan, who became NCMF secretary in July last year, immediately called for an investigation upon learning of the issue, said Ramos Jr.
He added that Pangarungan ordered that the amount be settled so it would not affect those joining the pilgrimage in August.
“If the final report will prove that there’s sufficient evidence of corruption, a case will be filed at the ombudsman,” Ramos Jr. said, adding that initial reports from the investigation indicate that funds were mismanaged by some NCMF officials.
Relations between the Philippines and Saudi Arabia stretch back almost five decades, with total trade of around $1.25 billion in 2017. The Kingdom hosts almost a million Filipino workers.


France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

Updated 19 May 2019
0

France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

  • His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent
  • In his country, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron sees himself as Europe’s savior and next week’s European Parliament elections as a make-or-break moment for the beleaguered European Union.
But Macron is no longer the fresh-faced force who marched into a surprising presidential victory to the rousing EU anthem two years ago. His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent. And at home, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies.
Macron wanted the May 23-26 European Parliament elections to be the key moment that he could push his ambitions for a stronger Europe — but instead, nationalists and populists who criticized the 28-nation bloc could achieve unprecedented success.
They argue that EU leaders have failed to manage migration into the continent and remain out of touch with ordinary workers’ concerns.
“We have a crisis of the European Union. This is a matter of fact. Everywhere in Europe, when you look at the past five to six years, in our country but in a lot of countries, all the extremes, extreme-rights, are increasing,” Macron said Thursday, making an unexpected appeal for European unity on the sidelines of a technology trade show.
“On currency, on digital, on climate action, we need more Europe,” he said. “I want the EU to be more protective of our borders regarding migration, terrorism and so on, but I think if you fragment Europe, there is no chance you have a stronger Europe.”
In person, the 41-year-old Macron comes across as strikingly, sincerely European. A political centrist, he’s at ease quoting Greek playwrights, German thinkers or British economists. France’s youngest president grew up with the EU and has been using the shared European euro currency his whole adult life, and sees it as Europe’s only chance to stay in the global economic game.
Macron has already visited 20 of the EU’s 28 countries in his two years in office, and while he acknowledges the EU’s problems, he wants to fix the bloc — not disassemble it.
Macron won the 2017 presidential election over France’s far-right, anti-immigration party leader Marine Le Pen on a pledge to make Europe stronger to face global competition against the Unites States and China. Since then, he’s had to make compromises with other EU leaders — and clashed with some nations where populist parties govern, from Poland to neighboring Italy.
Four months after his election, Macron outlined his vision for Europe in a sweeping speech at Paris’ Sorbonne university, calling for a joint EU budget, shared military forces and harmonized taxes.
But with Brexit looming and nationalism rising, Macron has had to reconsider his ambitions. He called his political tactics with other EU leaders a “productive confrontation.”
“In Europe, what is expected from France is to clearly say what it wants, its goals, its ambitions, and then be able to build a compromise with Germany to move forward” with other European countries, Macron said last week.
Macron stressed that despite her initial reluctance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed last year to create a eurozone budget they hope will boost investment and provide a safety mechanism for the 19 nations using the euro currency.
In March, Macron sought to draw support for a Europe of “freedom, protection and progress” with a written call to voters in 28 countries to reject nationalist parties that “offer nothing.”
And he proposed to define a roadmap for the EU by the end of this year in a discussion with all member nations and a panel of European citizens.
“There will be disagreement, but is it better to have a static Europe or a Europe that advances, sometimes at different paces, and that is open to all?” he asked.
France and Germany are the two heavyweights in Europe, and Macron can also count on cooperation from pro-European governments of Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and others.
He has made a point, however, of not yet visiting Hungary or Poland, two nations led by populist leaders whom Macron accused last year of “lying” to their people about the EU.
France has also been entangled in a serious diplomatic crisis with Italy over migration into Europe. Italy’s anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has repeatedly criticized Macron and is backing his rival Le Pen’s National Rally party in the election this week that aims to fill the European parliament’s 751 seats.
Macron has little chance to repeat Europe-wide what he did in France: rip up the political map by building a powerful centrist movement that weakened the traditional left and right.
The campaign for Macron’s Republic on the Move party is being led by former European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau under a banner called “Renaissance.” The party wants to associate with the pro-market ALDE alliance to create new centrist group at the European Parliament.
But across the continent, the centrists are not expected to come out remotely on top but rank third or even lower behind the parliament’s traditional two biggest groups, the right-wing European People’s Party and the left-wing Socialists and Democrats group.
Even at home, Macron is far from certain of being able to claim victory in the European vote. Polls suggest his party will be among France’s top two vote-getters in the election, which takes place in France on May 26.
But its main rival, the far-right National Rally party, is determined to take revenge on Macron beating Le Pen so decisively in 2017.
Macron’s political opponents across the spectrum are calling on French voters to seize the European vote to reject his government’s policies.
While he won 64% of the presidential vote in 2017, French polls show that Macron’s popularity has been around half that for the past year.
It reached record lows when France’s yellow vest movement broke out last fall, demanding relief from high taxes and stagnant wages for French workers, then slightly rose as extensive violence during yellow vest protests, especially in Paris, dampened support for the movement’s cause.
Still, the yellow vests are not going away. New protests against Macron and his government are planned for the EU election day.