‘Most important moment of my life’: Filipinos embark on Hajj after two-year hiatus

‘Most important moment of my life’: Filipinos embark on Hajj after two-year hiatus
Philippine Muslims stand outside a mosque in Manila on May 13, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 23 June 2022

‘Most important moment of my life’: Filipinos embark on Hajj after two-year hiatus

‘Most important moment of my life’: Filipinos embark on Hajj after two-year hiatus
  • About 3,500 Philippine Muslims are going to participate in Hajj this year
  • Number is lower than the country’s quota as travel costs have increased after pandemic

MANILA/DAVAO CITY: Bazer Sulaiman was ready to perform the Hajj in 2020, when coronavirus travel restrictions swept the world, preventing him and millions of other foreign pilgrims from reaching Makkah for two years.

One of Islam’s five main pillars of faith, the Hajj was restricted over pandemic fears to only 1,000 people living in Saudi Arabia in 2020. Last year, the Kingdom limited the pilgrimage to 60,000 domestic participants, compared with the pre-pandemic 2.5 million.

But this year, as it has already lifted most of its COVID-19 curbs, Saudi Arabia will welcome one million pilgrims from abroad — and 3,500 of them will come from the Philippines.

A predominantly Christian country of 110 million people, the Philippines has a Muslim minority comprising about a tenth of its population. Most Filipino Muslims live in the country’s south, in parts of Mindanao, Palawan and the Sulu Archipelago.

“It’s the most important moment of my life. I have been waiting for this,” Sulaiman, a 59-year-old retired policeman, told Arab News.

Embarking on his journey to Makkah and Madinah on Wednesday, the two holiest sites of Islam, Sulaiman will fly more than 8,500 km from Parang, Maguindanao province, in the southern part of Mindanao.

“I want to meet my fellow Muslims from the other side of the planet,” he said. “I want to strengthen my faith.”

This year, the Philippines has been allotted a quota of 4,074 pilgrims, but not all of them will be able to join the Hajj as the transportation industry still has not rebounded from two years of pandemic closures and travel costs are high, Malo B. Manonggiring, who heads the bureau of pilgrimage of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, told Arab News.

“They (the pilgrims) may be ready, but the problem is their financial capability because the cost of doing the Hajj now is $3,390. Before it was less than $3,000,” he said.

“The quota given to us was 4,074, but we are analyzing the situation, which is why we lowered it to 3,500.”

Mike Bantilan, a 58-year-old who is traveling to Makkah from Cotabato City in Maguindanao, has been supported by his family to perform the pilgrimage.

“There were donations from my relatives,” he said. “Because of my excitement and thinking of the memorable journey, there were nights I couldn’t sleep.”

Bantilan has already processed all the documents, and prepared himself physically, as he will travel this week.

“It’s obligatory for all Muslims who can afford to attend the Hajj,” he said. “I am doing this for Allah.”


In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia
Updated 8 sec ago

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia
  • For centuries, Aceh was the last Southeast Asian port of call for Hajj, known as the ‘Porch of Makkah’
  • Saudi Arabia was one the biggest single aid donors when a tsunami devastated Aceh in 2004 

JAKARTA: As they leave for Hajj, pilgrims from Aceh prepare for a transformative and spiritually moving experience, which for many of them also rekindles a special, centuries-old connection they feel for Saudi Arabia.

The westernmost province of Indonesia, Aceh is the site of the earliest Muslim kingdoms in Southeast Asia, which began to form in the late 13th century. 

It was the last Southeast Asian port of call for pilgrimages to the holiest city of Islam, and in the 17th century court chronicles of Aceh rulers began to refer to it as “Serambi Makkah,” or “Porch of Makkah” — a term that is still used by the Acehnese today.

Now, the opportunity to depart for the real Makkah and perform Hajj is something they look forward to for years, if not decades.

“In Aceh it’s about 30 to 31 years,” Mizaj Iskandar, who has been tasked by the local government with organizing the pilgrimage, told Arab News.

“They are certainly very emotional because they have been waiting for so long,” he said. “By the time they receive the call, they must be moved, happy, and in disbelief. All these emotions you can find in almost all the participants.”

One of the pilgrims, 58-year-old Kamariah from Aceh Besar regency, could not find the words to describe how moved she was that she would be able to see the Kaaba at the center of the Grand Mosque, Masjid Al-Haram, in Makkah.

“I don’t know how to express how happy I am to see Kaaba,” she said. “It feels like I will never want to leave it.”

Like other pilgrims, Kamariah has been preparing for the journey, especially spiritually.

“Before we go to the holy land, we must have already cleansed our hearts,” she said. “We hope to become good Hajj pilgrims.”

One of Islam’s five pillars of faith, the Hajj was restricted over pandemic fears to only 1,000 people living in Saudi Arabia in 2020. In 2021, the Kingdom limited the pilgrimage to 60,000 domestic participants, compared with the pre-pandemic 2.5 million.

But this year, as it has already lifted most of its COVID-19 curbs, Saudi Arabia will welcome 1 million pilgrims from abroad. More than 100,000 of them are arriving from Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. And among them, 2,022 are from Aceh.

“My family and I have not stopped expressing our gratitude to Allah, because we have been called this year to go for Hajj,” Amalia Sabrina, a doctor from Sigli town in the Pidie regency of Aceh, told Arab News.

“I once had a dream of the event that has now taken place, and it feels almost like deja vu to be in the same position as in that dream.”

She arrived in the Kingdom last week and was enjoying the hospitality with which pilgrims have been received.

“Whether it’s the hotel service, food, laundry, service at the shops, or the people,” she said. “Everyone has been friendly.”

Sabrina’s younger brother Miftahul Hamdi, a football player, was also grateful to be in the Kingdom.

“I am so grateful to get this opportunity to go for Hajj this year,” he said. “Aceh is often referred to as a ‘Makkah porch,’ so being able to go for Hajj here is just very fulfilling and makes me feel very grateful.” 

The enthusiasm Acehnese have for the Hajj pilgrimage, a sacred milestone for Muslims, is reinforced by their historical links to Saudi Arabia.

Marzuki Abubakar, researcher and lecturer at Ar-Raniry State Islamic University in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, said that Islam in Aceh has revolved around Arabia ever since its advent in Southeast Asia. The coastal region also connected the rest of the islands that constitute present-day Indonesia with the Middle East.

“Aceh was a transit point for Hajj pilgrims to go to Makkah from all over the archipelago,” he said. “There’s amazing enthusiasm among Acehnese to go for Hajj.”

What has recently strengthened the bond was the help the Acehnese received from the Kingdom during one of the darkest periods in the region’s history — the 2004 tsunami.

“They are emotionally attached to Saudi Arabia because of the help they received after the tsunami,” Abubakar told Arab News.

Saudi Arabia was one the biggest single donors to the relief response, when the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami devastated Aceh, killing more than 160,000 people — nearly 5 percent of the local population.

Saudi charities helped rebuild houses, medical facilities and the 17th-century Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh — a symbol of religion and identity of the Acehnese.

Nurlinda Nurdin, a radio reporter from Banda Aceh, who performed the pilgrimage in 2006 and spent two months covering Hajj preparations in Saudi Arabia, said that before the journey she would often fall ill, but all her ailments were gone when she was there.

“When I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I was always healthy. I was fully working, didn’t feel exhausted at all, I was enjoying myself, I was comfortable,” she told Arab News.

“I just felt super close, as if my house was just right behind the mountain. My heart was just at ease.”


Desperate Sri Lankans flee country by sea as crisis worsens

Desperate Sri Lankans flee country by sea as crisis worsens
Updated 55 min 40 sec ago

Desperate Sri Lankans flee country by sea as crisis worsens

Desperate Sri Lankans flee country by sea as crisis worsens
  • Island nation is struggling with acute shortages of food, fuel and medicines
  • Navy has arrested some 450 people trying to travel abroad illegally this year

COLOMBO: Hundreds of Sri Lankans have tried to leave the country illegally so far this year, the navy said on Monday, as it foiled another such attempt over the weekend amid the country’s worst economic turmoil in decades.

Sri Lanka has lacked the foreign currency to buy all it needs from abroad, and has faced extreme shortages of basic necessities including fuel, food, and lately also medicines. Inflation has skyrocketed in recent months and is now running at 40 percent.

The country of 22 million people last month defaulted on its multimillion-dollar foreign debt, and is struggling to secure new shipments of fuel as it uses its last supply of petrol and diesel to keep essential services running.

In search of better opportunities and as the country inches closer to the brink of collapse, a rising number of Sri Lankans have chosen to partake in illegal migration.

Navy spokesman Capt. Indika De Silva said that 54 people are currently in custody, following a raid conducted on Sunday in Batticaloa district in the country’s east coast.

“This year, the number of migrants has increased manifold due to various reasons such as the present economic stress and the smugglers trying to exploit (the situation) by attracting innocent people toward greener pastures,” De Silva told Arab News.

“We have apprehended some 450 people this year, including this batch, which is double the number arrested the whole of last year.”

Over the years, Sri Lankans have illegally traveled to Australia and other nations for economic and political reasons, but the number increased in recent months as the worsening crisis appears to have also emboldened human traffickers.

“With recent economic hardships, illegal smugglers pitched the business again to get large payments by taking people on this journey. People are also willing to take the risk,” Colombo-based human rights activist, Muheed Jeeran, told Arab News.

Many of them who are headed to Australia were unaware that the government down under has been turning back unauthorized boat arrivals.

“Unfortunately, these vulnerable people don’t know that the Australian government will return them in those boats with their new laws in place,” he added.

“The ultimate winners are human smugglers.”


British Muslim leader claims community fears ‘attack at any time’

British Muslim leader claims community fears ‘attack at any time’
Updated 27 June 2022

British Muslim leader claims community fears ‘attack at any time’

British Muslim leader claims community fears ‘attack at any time’
  • 35 percent of UK Islamic centers experience at least 1 religiously motivated attack a year: New study

LONDON: British Muslims fear “an attack at any time,” a leading member of the community has claimed, as new research revealed an increase in anti-Muslim hate crime.

Mohammed Kozbar, chairman of Finsbury Park Mosque, in London, which was the target of a fatal terrorist attack in 2017, said the number of cases of Islamophobia in the UK was on the rise.

One person died and several others were injured when a van was driven into pedestrians just yards from the north London mosque on June 19, five years ago.

“Our community still feels the fear and intimidation, and they expect an attack at any time. What happened was not a one off. The situation is even worse than it was five years ago. Islamophobia is on the rise, and no one can deny that,” Kozbar added.

His comments came as a new study found that many mosques throughout Britain had experienced attacks in the last three years.

The report, conducted by the Muslim Engagement and Development group (MEND), analyzed data from more than 100 UK mosques which revealed that 35 percent of Islamic centers faced at least one anti-Muslim attack every year.

Kozbar said: “We don’t even have a definition of Islamophobia yet. We don’t have laws or legislation to protect the community yet. So, we hope the government will take action.”

The MEND study found that theft and vandalism were the most common crimes affecting Muslim institutions.

The latest data reflected other recent statistics showing a wider anti-Muslim trend In England and Wales, where 76,884 racially and religiously aggravated offences were recorded in 2021, up 15 percent from 66,742 in 2020.

MEND regional manager, Nayeem Haque, told Sky News that the figures were “indicative of a wider trend of Islamophobia,” in Britain.

He said: “We believe the Islamophobic narrative being peddled in wider society is to blame for the rise in attacks we’ve seen in the Muslim community.”

Haque pointed out that there was now more anxiety among Muslims about visiting a place of worship.

“But overwhelmingly our community is resilient, and we want to show this message of resilience and that this won’t impact our faith,” he added.


G7: We will stand with Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’

G7: We will stand with Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’
Updated 59 min 52 sec ago

G7: We will stand with Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’

G7: We will stand with Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’
  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the global economic fallout such as soaring energy and food prices has dominated this year’s summit

GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany: Leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies on Monday pledged to stand with Ukraine “for as long as it takes” by cranking up sanctions on Russia and backing security commitments for Kyiv in a post-war settlement.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the global economic fallout such as soaring energy and food prices has dominated this year’s summit of the leaders of Germany, the United States, France, Italy, Canada, Japan and Britain.
“We will continue to provide financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support and stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes,” said the statement.
The statement was issued on the second day of the summit taking place at a castle in the Bavarian Alps, shortly after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed G7 leaders on the war via video link.
In that address, which was not broadcast to the public, Zelensky asked for anti-aircraft defense systems, more sanctions on Russia and security guarantees, a European official said. He also said he wanted Russia’s war in Ukraine ended by the end of the year before the winter sets in.
The G7 leaders said they would continue to coordinate efforts to meet Ukraine’s urgent military needs and were ready to work with interested countries and institutions on sustained security commitments.
It was up to Ukraine to decide on a future peace settlement, free from external pressure or influence, they said, but they stood ready to support an international reconstruction plan, drawn up and implemented by Ukraine in coordination with partners.
This year’s G7 host, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, said last week the country needed a “Marshall Plan,” like the US program that rebuilt Europe after World War Two.
“We welcome the Presidency’s initiative to convene with Ukraine an international high-level experts conference, to make progress on a comprehensive reconstruction plan,” the statement read.
The G7 leaders were ready to grant, or had already pledged or provided up to $29.5 billion in 2022 to help Ukraine close its financing gap, the statement said. Between 2014 and 2021, the group had already provided more than $60 billion of support.
The leaders were committed to cranking up the economic pressure on Russian “President (Vladimir) Putin’s regime and its enablers in Belarus, depriving Russia of the economic means to persist in its war of aggression against Ukraine.”
They would also impose targeted sanctions on those responsible for war crimes, exercising “illegitimate authority” in Ukraine or helping Russian efforts that they said increased global food insecurity.
Russia denies committing war crimes in what it calls a special military operation, aimed at demilitarizing Ukraine and removing dangerous nationalists. Ukraine and its allies in the West say this is a baseless excuse for a war of aggression.


South African police search bar for clues after 21 teens die

South African police search bar for clues after 21 teens die
Updated 27 June 2022

South African police search bar for clues after 21 teens die

South African police search bar for clues after 21 teens die
  • The fatalities bore no visible signs of injury, sparking initial speculation among local officials and politicians
  • Many of the victims are thought to have been students celebrating the end of their high-school exams

EAST LONDON, South Africa: South African police were on Monday combing a township tavern where 21 teenagers mysteriously died as survivors described a battle to escape the jam-packed premises and one reported a suffocating smell.
Most of the victims, some as young as 13 years, were found dead inside a popular bar in the southern city of East London.
Seventeen were died inside the bar, while four died in hospital.
Thirty-one others were hospitalized with symptoms including backache, tight chests, vomiting and headache, official said.
Most were discharged on Sunday, leaving two in hospital, they said.
The fatalities bore no visible signs of injury, sparking initial speculation among local officials and politicians that this was a case of under-age drinking that went tragically wrong.
But new details emerged Monday as survivors spoke of a strong and suffocating smell in the jam-packed double-story building.
Sinovuyo Monyane, 19, who was hired by the bar to promote an alcohol brand, said she was still “confused” but felt lucky to be alive.
She said she struggled to escape through a door gridlocked with people.
“We tried moving through the crowd, shouting ‘please let us through,’ and others were shouting ‘we are dying, guys,’ and ‘we are suffocating’ and ‘there are people who can’t breathe’,” she said.
“I passed out at that moment. I was running out of breath and there was a strong smell of some type of spray on in the air. We thought it was pepper spray,” she said.
She later regained her consciousnesses after someone sprayed water on her.
“I got up and realized that there were bodies lying around. I saw people being poured water, but those people did not even move,” she said in a phone interview.
“I could have died.”
Special investigators from Pretoria have been rushed to the scene.
“The detectives will be resuming their work at the crime scene today,” regional police spokesman Thembinkosi Kinana said.
Many of the victims are thought to have been students celebrating the end of their high-school exams, officials said.
Autopsies are being conducted to see if the deaths could be linked to poisoning.
“Post-mortems (were) completed by last night and the bodies will be released to their families today,” said Yonela Dekeda, provincial spokeswoman for the health department.
Forensic analysis will be conducted this week.
“Samples were taken and were on first flight today to Cape Town, where the tests will be conducted,” said Unathi Binqose, a government official on safety.
Drinking in South Africa is permitted for over-18s.
But in township taverns which are often located cheek-by-jowl with family homes, safety regulations and drinking-age laws are not always enforced.
President Cyril Ramaphosa is among those who have voiced concern.
The teenagers reportedly “gathered at a venue which, on the face of it, should be off-limits to persons under the age of 18,” he said.
A resident DJ, who was also celebrating his birthday on the night, spoke of a rush of revellers who forced their way into an already packed venue.
“We tried to close the door but people kept pushing. The bouncers could not handle the crowd that was pushing from outside the entrance door. There were so many people,” the DJ said.
He turned off the music to try discourage revellers, but to no avail.
The crowd was just “unruly and could not be managed,” he said, adding he was “traumatized.”
In a tweet, African Union Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat expressed his thoughts and prayers “during this time of unspeakable grief and sorrow.”