Pakistani businesses that rely on Hajj pilgrims face bleak future

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Updated 29 July 2020

Pakistani businesses that rely on Hajj pilgrims face bleak future

  • The decision to severely restrict this year’s pilgrimage has badly affected nearly 5,000 small businesses in Karachi alone
  • Almost 180,000 Pakistanis planned to take part in the pilgrimage; the nation’s Hajj industry is worth an estimated 160 billion rupees ($1 billion)

KARACHI: Each year in the run-up to the annual pilgrimage to Makkah, hundreds of Pakistanis visit Shaikh Rafi’s store on Karachi’s busy M. A. Jinnah Road to buy prayer mats and ihram clothing, the two seamless pieces of cloth that Muslims wear during Hajj.

But not this year. Since the announcement last month by Saudi authorities that Hajj would be limited to a few thousand pilgrims who reside in the Kingdom, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Rafi has spent his days dusting off unsold goods as he waits anxiously for customers who never arrive.

“This has been our routine for the past couple of months,” said Rafi, whose store is in Karachi’s Allahwala Market.

The plans of about 2.5 million Muslims around the world were upended when this year’s Hajj was scaled down dramatically. In Pakistan, almost 180,000 people had their trips canceled, and the effect on the country’s 160 billion-rupee ($1 billion) Hajj industry has been devastating. Rafi’s store is just one of at least 5,000 small businesses in Karachi that have been badly affected.

“Since the decision by the Kingdom to suspend Umrah flights and limit Hajj, almost all related businesses are experiencing reduced sales,” he said. “We open our shops expecting that someone might come but the day ends with no customers.

Wholesaler Muhammad Rizwan said: “In normal circumstances, people used to buy prayer rugs and caps, before or after performing Hajj or Umrah, as gifts for their relatives and friends — but since the lockdown, the industry has completely shut down.”

Traders say it is not only the lack of sales that is causing problems, but also delayed payments.

“There has been no business for about the past five months and our payments from retailers and shop owners who buy on credit have been held up,” said Muhammad Hanif Katlia, a wholesale supplier of ihram clothing. “Many shopkeepers have defaulted (on their bills) and have not paid rent, and many have fled without paying what is due.”

Some factories that produce goods for the Hajj and Umrah industry have been force to shut down completely, costing jobs, while others have switched to manufacturing other items.

“Production has been stopped for the past five months and we have laid off workers,” said Jannat Gul, whose business manufactures ihram clothing and other Hajj-related products. “There is no buying and selling, and borrowers have not been paying back what they owe since Umrah was suspended due to coronavirus.”

This year is the first time in the modern era that pilgrims from other countries are not allowed into Makkah. According to Pakistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, which oversees the nation’s Hajj arrangements, 179,210 Pakistanis had registered to attend this year: 71,684 with private tour operators and 107,526 through cheaper, government-supported packages.

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S. Korean Christians facing ‘unprecedented challenge’ over virus spread claims: Church cleric

Updated 24 September 2020

S. Korean Christians facing ‘unprecedented challenge’ over virus spread claims: Church cleric

  • South Korean churches have been accused of ‘deliberately hampering’ COVID-19 response while groups say they are being made ‘scapegoats’

SEOUL: South Korean church leader, Rev. Lee Byung-seok, has become battle-weary over the country’s fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The cleric, who preaches at a small church in Suwon, in northwestern Gyeonggi province, has faced a tough time fending off claims that Christians were the main culprits for spreading the deadly virus.

Since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in February, the religious community has been in the firing line for allegedly propagating the disease in the east Asian country which has to date recorded 23,216 cases and 388 deaths.

“The Christian sect in South Korea faces an unprecedented challenge,” the pastor told Arab News on Wednesday.

“Imagine police bursting into the chapel where prayers are at church, and the officer saying he’s responding to a call from a citizen who disbelievingly reported the church’s breach of a ban on gatherings. This happens at many churches. Except for a few churches, most have been observing health rules despite emotional and financial losses. Enforcing these restrictions upon all churches is too far,” he said.

Gatherings at churches have been tightly controlled by the South Korean government to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Under updated quarantine rules adopted on Sept. 20, up to 50 worshippers are allowed to attend churches with a seating capacity of 300 or more. Smaller churches can only take a maximum congregation of 20.

The Sarang Jeil Church, in the capital Seoul, has been at the center of the controversy over claims that Christians were to blame for spreading COVID-19 in South Korea after hundreds of cases were linked to the religious group and the church’s pastor, Jun Kwang-hoon, led a massive anti-government rally on Aug. 15, the country’s Liberation Day.

“The Sarang Jeil Church does not represent the sentiment of the Christian sect here, and the church has been already politicalized to affect other churches,” Lee said.

Health authorities said that the protests in central Seoul, where tens of thousands of Jun’s followers had converged, triggered a second wave of COVID-19 resulting in nearly 1,200 infections in the capital area.

A conservative pastor, believed to be popular among opposition politicians, Jun was accused of “defying health rules” to hold services and anti-government protests, while some of his churchgoers were criticized for refusing to take part in COVID-19 testing.

The situation led to President Moon Jae-in vowing to hold churches accountable for impeding government efforts to contain the disease.

“Certain churches have refused the government’s quarantine guidelines and hindered efforts to tackle the virus spread,” he said during a meeting with representatives of 16 churches and related groups on Aug. 27.

“Prayers or services may bring peace of mind but cannot protect people from the virus. The quarantine is not the domain of God but that of science and medicine,” he added. Jun tested positive for the virus two days after the Aug. 15 demonstration and was jailed after his bail was revoked.

The cleric was also detained earlier this year on charges of violating election laws after he called the president a “North Korean spy.” He was later released on conditional bail which included a ban on him attending political rallies or protests.

On Sept. 18, the Seoul city government sued Jun and his Sarang Jeil Church for nearly $3.9 million in damages related to the COVID-19 cluster “connected to its adherents.”

The city said in a statement that Jun had deliberately hampered its response to the virus outbreak by “refusing to observe health rules and submitting fake records.”

Meanwhile, statistics from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) showed that at least 1,168 positive patients had been traced to the church cluster.

The numbers were second only to those linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, often regarded as a nationwide cult organization, whose 5,200 cases were at the center of the country’s first wave of infections in February.

“We will take all possible measures to prove the damages incurred by Rev. Jun’s illegal activities that caused damages to the ordinary citizens,” Hwang In-shik, spokesman for the Seoul city government, told Arab News on Wednesday.

He said citizens had faced many difficulties due to the introduction of enhanced social distancing measures following a recent resurgence of cases, as well as the negative impact of the outbreak on the national economy.

“This is a matter of quarantine for the sake of people’s health, not oppressing a certain religion nor a church,” he added.

However, the Presbyterian church has remained defiant, arguing that the left-leaning Moon administration had made it a “scapegoat” for political reasons.

“A key reason why the Moon administration oppresses us is that Jun and his followers have taken the lead in striking Moon’s communist policies,” Kang Yeon-jae, a spokeswoman for Jun, told Arab News.

“We advocate the liberal democracy, which is not a path Moon takes. In this ideological conflict of a free world versus communism, our church is taking the bullet when few stand against Moon’s political blunders and pro-North Korean policies.”

South Korean Protestant churches have deep roots with the US, as American missionaries brought the religion to Korea.

Many of the megachurches in South Korea were founded by Protestants who fled communist persecution in North Korea before the 1950-53 Korean War and benefited from postwar aid from Americans.