As inflation soars, religious affairs minister says Hajj cheaper for Pakistani pilgrims 'in dollar terms'

Special As inflation soars, religious affairs minister says Hajj cheaper for Pakistani pilgrims 'in dollar terms'
The photo taken on May 23, 2023, shows Pakistan's Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Senator Talha Mahmood in his office in Islamabad, Pakistan. (AN Photo)
Short Url
Updated 24 May 2023
Follow

As inflation soars, religious affairs minister says Hajj cheaper for Pakistani pilgrims 'in dollar terms'

As inflation soars, religious affairs minister says Hajj cheaper for Pakistani pilgrims 'in dollar terms'
  • Senator Talha Mahmood says Hajj is costing $3,800 this year while it was $5,000 last year
  • The minister blames rupee depreciation as the real issue behind the affordability problem

ISLAMABAD: Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Senator Talha Mahmood said on Tuesday Hajj had become cheaper for Pakistani pilgrims in dollar terms compared to last year while expressing hope the government would receive “extraordinary facilities” and cooperation from the Saudi authorities during the annual pilgrimage.

The Hajj is an obligatory religious ritual for adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of carrying it out. It involves visiting the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah at least once in a lifetime and takes place during the last month of the lunar Islamic calendar called Dhu Al-Hijjah.

Saudi Arabia reinstated Pakistan’s pre-pandemic Hajj quota of 179,210 pilgrims and scrapped the upper age limit of 65 in January. About 80,000 Pakistani pilgrims are expected to perform the pilgrimage under the government scheme this year, and the rest will be facilitated by private tour operators.

Pakistan started the Hajj flight operation to Saudi Arabia from different cities, including Karachi, Lahore, and Faisalabad, on Sunday, and it is expected to continue until June 21.

“In terms of dollars, the Hajj cost $5,000 last year, and it is $3,800 this year,” he told Arab News in an exclusive interview on Tuesday night. “Hajj is cheaper compared to the previous year, but the Pakistani rupee has devalued, and the dollar has appreciated.”




A Pakistani hajj volunteer speaks to pilgrims at Makkah, Saudi Arabia on June 16, 2022. (Courtesy: Pakistani Hajj mission in Jeddah/File)

The minister said his team had already returned Rs55,000 to each pilgrim and was looking for ways to bring the overall Hajj cost further down.

He thanked King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman for their generosity toward the people of Pakistan, saying: “They always stand by us in difficult times. They accommodate us in different things with respect to Hajj. This is a full swing Hajj after four years. I believe they will provide us with extraordinary facilities.”

Pakistan introduced a Hajj sponsorship scheme this year, allowing its overseas nationals to apply for pilgrimage in United States dollars or sponsor close relatives in the country. However, it received a lackluster response, with only 7,000 applications against an allocated quota of 44,000.

“Everything is made complicated in our country while the need is to simplify the system,” the minister said, blaming certain flaws in the scheme for its failure. “People were facing difficulties in getting their passports and remit dollars.”

In the wake of the dollar shortage in the country, the government returned a Hajj quota of nearly 8,000 to the Saudi authorities but later managed to get some 1,500 back to accommodate domestic applicants.

“We had returned the quota of around 8,000 because the Ministry of Finance had to release $24 million, and it was not ready to give [the amount],” he informed.

Asked about the Makkah Route Initiative, a component of Saudi Arabia’s Guests of God Service Program inaugurated in 2019 under Vision 2030 to diversify the kingdom’s economy, Mahmood said there was no hurdle in expanding it beyond Islamabad, but the issue was not taken up with the Saudi authorities before the Hajj flight operation.

Under the scheme, Hajj pilgrims go through immigration facilities at the airports of their respective countries, making it possible for them to enter the kingdom without repeating the same procedure upon arriving in Saudi Arabia.

“There was a need to work on it before the Hajj,” said the minister. “Unfortunately, it was not done.”

However, he vowed to expand the initiative to Lahore and Karachi airports in the coming year to facilitate the maximum number of pilgrims with the innovative immigration process.

Asked about regulating private Hajj operators who enjoy half of the pilgrims’ quota, he promised to initiate action against them in case of any complaints.

“We will see on merit after Hajj... if we get complaints from pilgrims, what action we can initiate against [these firms],” Mahmood said. “If we get something serious during the Hajj, we will initiate action.”

However, he pointed out that the government would require “genuine information with proof” to justify the action.

Regarding day-to-day issues and complaints of pilgrims before their departure from Pakistan, he said the government was receiving complaints about the biometric data of elderly people, along with delays in visa processing, vaccination, and flight delays. He added they were swiftly trying to address these challenges.

“It is difficult to keep one hundred percent of people complaint-free,” he continued. “Our job is to keep the maximum number of people in a better situation.”


'They love their cricket': Rohit Sharma lauds Pakistani fans for praising Indian cricketers

'They love their cricket': Rohit Sharma lauds Pakistani fans for praising Indian cricketers
Updated 12 sec ago
Follow

'They love their cricket': Rohit Sharma lauds Pakistani fans for praising Indian cricketers

'They love their cricket': Rohit Sharma lauds Pakistani fans for praising Indian cricketers
  • India and Pakistan, bitter political adversaries, enjoy one of sports fiercest rivalries in cricket
  • Indian captain Rohit Sharma bats for Test series with arch-rivals, says Pakistan “overall a good team”

ISLAMABAD: Indian captain Rohit Sharma recently praised Pakistani fans for appreciating Indian cricketers, saying that he would love to play in a Test series between the two arch-rivals if it were ever to take place. 

The South Asian neighbors are bitter political adversaries and have fought three wars against each other since they were partitioned at the end of British colonial rule in 1947. Their tensions mean the two countries rarely play bilateral series against one another and meet only at “neutral venues” during international tournaments. 

Sharma, 37, appeared on ‘Dubai Eye 103.8,’ a Dubai-based talk radio station on Wednesday to discuss the upcoming T20 World Cup 2024 and his journey as India’s skipper so far. During the show, the hosts relayed a message to Sharma from a Pakistani fan. 

“Loved the messages from the Pakistani fans,” Sharma said, smiling. “I know they love their cricket, they love it. Every time, mainly when we are in the UK these guys come and just tell us how, respectfully, how they love us, how they love Indian cricketers and how they love to watch some of us at big stages.”

India and Pakistan are bitter political adversaries and have fought three wars against each other since they were partitioned at the end of British colonial rule in 1947.

Their cricket teams have not faced off in a Test since 2007. Instead, they play only occasionally in the shorter versions of the game. 

When asked whether there were chances of India and Pakistan playing each other in a Test match soon, Sharma said:

“I don’t know the status of it. Personally if you ask me, I’m a cricketer at the end of the day. I want to play cricket and I want to get challenged at whatever stage I play cricket, and I feel Pakistan is a good team.”

Sharma praised Pakistan for having “solid bowlers,” saying that the green shirts are “overall a very good team.” He said cricket fans around the world would love to watch a Test series between the two arch-rivals. 

“I actually have no issues it’s just from a pure cricketing perspective if I have to look at it, it’s going to be a great cricket contest,” he explained. 

India and Pakistan have not faced each other on either side’s soil in a bilateral series since 2012.

India last year refused to travel to Pakistan for the white-ball Asia Cup, prompting part of the tournament to be staged in Sri Lanka. They last met at the 50-over World Cup in India in October.

The two cricket giants will square off on June 9 in New York when the T20 World Cup 2024 gets underway. 


26,711 Pakistani pilgrims reach Saudi Arabia ahead of this year’s Hajj

26,711 Pakistani pilgrims reach Saudi Arabia ahead of this year’s Hajj
Updated 21 May 2024
Follow

26,711 Pakistani pilgrims reach Saudi Arabia ahead of this year’s Hajj

26,711 Pakistani pilgrims reach Saudi Arabia ahead of this year’s Hajj
  • Around 179,210 Pakistanis will perform Hajj under both government and private schemes 
  • Over 1,000 Pakistani Hajj pilgrims have arrived in Kingdom through private tour operators

ISLAMABAD: A spokesperson for Pakistan’s religion ministry said on Tuesday 26,711 Pakistani pilgrims have arrived in Saudi Arabia ahead of next month’s Hajj, less than two weeks after the country kicked off its pre-Hajj flight operations to the Kingdom. 

This year, around 179,210 Pakistanis will perform Hajj under both the government and private schemes, for which a month-long flight operation started on May 9. This year’s pilgrimage is expected to run from June 14-19.

“Through 109 flights, 26,711 Pakistani Hajj pilgrims have reached Saudi Arabia,” a spokesperson of the Religious Affairs (MoRA) said in a statement. “After an eight-day stay in Madinah, the first convoy of 6,011 Hajj pilgrims has left for Makkah.”

The spokesperson said over 1,000 Hajj pilgrims have arrived in Saudi Arabia through the private scheme, adding that 336 assistants or “Hajj Moavineen” have been deployed to help Pakistani pilgrims, and ensure their pilgrimage remains a hassle-free one. 

He said Pakistan’s Religious Affairs Minister Chaudhry Salik Hussain visited the residences of Pakistani Hajj pilgrims in Makkah recently and also reviewed arrangements for their food and travel in the holy city. 

“Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Chaudhry Salik Hussain is expected to hold an important meeting with his Saudi counterpart today,” the spokesperson said. 

Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and requires every adult Muslim to undertake the journey to the holy Islamic sites in Makkah at least once in their lifetime, provided they are financially and physically able to do so.

Pilgrims from Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi are availing the Makkah Route Initiative facility for the first time. Launched in 2019, the initiative allows for the completion of immigration procedures at the pilgrims’ country of departure. 

This makes it possible to bypass long immigration and customs checks upon reaching Saudi Arabia, which significantly reduces the waiting time and makes the entry process smoother and faster. 


Pakistan seeks regional connectivity, integration as FM Dar meets SCO counterparts in Kazakhstan

Pakistan seeks regional connectivity, integration as FM Dar meets SCO counterparts in Kazakhstan
Updated 21 May 2024
Follow

Pakistan seeks regional connectivity, integration as FM Dar meets SCO counterparts in Kazakhstan

Pakistan seeks regional connectivity, integration as FM Dar meets SCO counterparts in Kazakhstan
  • Ishaq Dar meets foreign ministers of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan at sidelines of SCO Foreign Ministers Council meeting
  • SCO member states collectively represent nearly half of world’s population, quarter of global economic output 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar met his counterparts from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) this week in Kazakhstan as Islamabad seeks regional connectivity and integration through various projects, the foreign office said.

Dar, who is also Pakistan’s deputy prime minister, arrived in Astana on Monday to attend the two-day meeting of the SCO’s Foreign Ministers Council. Founded in 2001, the SCO is a major trans-regional organization spanning South and Central Asia, with China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan as its permanent members. The SCO member states collectively represent nearly half of the world’s population and a quarter of global economic output. 

Pakistan has aimed to enhance its role as a pivotal trade and transit hub connecting the Central Asian republics with the rest of the world, leveraging its strategic geographical position.

Dar met Tajikistan’s Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin on Tuesday at the sidelines of the CFM meeting where they committed to further strengthen bilateral cooperation and high-level dialogue. 

“They underlined the early implementation of CASA-1000 project and other connectivity and regional integration projects for mutual benefit of the two countries and the wider region,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) said. 

The CASA-1000 project aims to allow Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, former Soviet republics with an extensive network of hydroelectric power plants, to sell excess energy to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the summer months.

The development took place a day after Dar met Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Minister Jeenbek Kulubaev. The two discussed last week’s violent clashes in Bishkek that forced Pakistan to repatriate over 600 students from Kyrgyzstan within days. 

During the meeting, Dar shared the feelings of insecurity and fear among Pakistani students with Kulubaev and requested the foreign minister to ensure their safety and security. He also requested for holding to account those responsible for the attacks on Pakistani students, the foreign office said. 

“Bilateral relations between Pakistan and Kyrgyz Republic especially in the domains of energy, connectivity, trade and people-to-people contacts also came under discussion,” the foreign office said. “And both dignitaries expressed satisfaction at the progress of established bilateral institutional mechanisms.”

Pakistan has recently undertaken measures to enhance bilateral trade and ramped up efforts to attract foreign investment to stave off a chronic balance of payments and macroeconomic crisis. 

Since April, the South Asian country has seen a flurry of high-level engagements. These included visits by the Iranian president, Saudi foreign minister, a delegation of top Saudi companies as well as officials from Qatar, China, Japan and Central Asian countries, among others.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has vowed to rid Pakistan of its economic crisis by attracting foreign investment, efficiently utilizing its state-owned enterprises and ensuring sustainable development of its priority sectors.


Pakistan’s leading rights body expresses ‘grave concern’ as Punjab passes defamation law

Pakistan’s leading rights body expresses ‘grave concern’ as Punjab passes defamation law
Updated 21 May 2024
Follow

Pakistan’s leading rights body expresses ‘grave concern’ as Punjab passes defamation law

Pakistan’s leading rights body expresses ‘grave concern’ as Punjab passes defamation law
  • Bill proposes special tribunals to decide cases within six months, issue hefty fines to persons for spreading “fake news”
  • Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says bill would serve as a “huge blow to freedom of expression and dissent”

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s leading rights body this week expressed “grave concern” over a defamation bill passed by the Punjab Assembly that empowers special tribunals to impose hefty fines on persons found guilty of peddling fake news, saying it would lead to a clampdown on freedom of speech and expression in the country. 

The bill empowers the government to establish a special tribunal to try those involved in drafting, publishing and/or airing “fake news.” The tribunal shall decide the case within six months and may impose a fine of up to Rs3 million ($10,770). However, when cases against individuals who hold constitutional posts are heard, the high court will hear them.

The bill also states that the government will provide legal assistance to women and transgender individuals in defamation cases through a legal team. The bill was tabled by Punjab Finance Minister Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman in the assembly on Monday, ignoring calls from the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and other media bodies to delay voting on it. 

A ruckus ensued in the assembly with opposition lawmakers tearing copies of it and shouting slogans after the house passed it through a voice vote. Journalists present in the press gallery staged a walkout, saying the bill attempts to silence dissent. 

“The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed grave concern over the draft defamation bill tabled in the Punjab Assembly,” the HRCP said in a statement on Monday. 

The HRCP pointed out that the bill proposes a parallel structure to adjudicate defamation claims, adding that it has always opposed the same on the grounds that such measures “invariably violate fundamental rights and other universally accepted norms governing the fair functioning of the judiciary.”

It also raised alarm over the fact that the bill empowers the government to set up defamation tribunals and appoint judges at higher allowances and benefits than what are available to the existing provincial judiciary functioning at the district level. 

The HRCP said the bill states that defamation claims have to be resolved within 180 days and proposes authorizing tribunals to issue preliminary decrees up to Rs3 million without trial on receiving a defamation claim. 

“This will be a huge blow to freedom of expression and dissent,” the rights body said. “Such orders are likely to be passed without following due process and ensuring fair trials.”

The HRCP highlighted that the bill creates a “special category” of constitutional officeholders such as the prime minister, chief justices and military chiefs, among others. Defamation claims against these members would be heard by a one-member tribunal comprising a judge of the Lahore High Court. 

“This provision violates the principle of equality of citizens and equality before the law,” it said. 

Meanwhile, Punjab Information Minister Azma Bokhari last week defended the bill, saying its main purpose was to stop the spread of lies and defamation. 

“A person who lies under the guise of a journalist with a specific agenda will face the music under this proposed law,” Bokhari told journalists during a news conference on Wednesday. 

Bokhari said some articles peddling fake news which were published in Pakistan could not be published in other countries due to the stringent laws there that hamper such practices. 

“After this law, no one can be blackmailed,” she said. “Freedom of expression can neither be restricted, nor will be allowed to commit wrongdoing.”

Media bodies have often cited Pakistan as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on May 3 released its country report on Pakistan in which it said over 300 journalists and bloggers this year were affected by state coercion. 

The report said dozens of journalists were arrested this year for durations between several hours to four weeks and nearly 60 were served legal notices or summons for their journalism work or personal dissent online. 
 


Met Office warns of glacial floods in Pakistan’s north amid rising temperatures

Met Office warns of glacial floods in Pakistan’s north amid rising temperatures
Updated 21 May 2024
Follow

Met Office warns of glacial floods in Pakistan’s north amid rising temperatures

Met Office warns of glacial floods in Pakistan’s north amid rising temperatures
  • A heatwave is expected to hit Pakistan this week, with temperatures in certain areas surging past 40 degrees Celsius
  • Pakistan this year experienced its ‘wettest April since 1961,’ with at least 144 people killed in rain-related incidents

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) on Monday warned of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) in Pakistan’s northern Gilgit-Baltistan region and northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, citing higher temperatures due to an expected heatwave from May 21 onwards.

A heatwave is expected to hit parts of Pakistan this week and temperatures in certain areas of the southern Sindh and eastern Punjab provinces may surge past 40 degrees Celsius, according to the country’s disaster management authorities.

Heatwaves, which occur in summer, are caused by slow-moving high-pressure systems leading to prolonged high temperatures. The World Meteorological Organization defines a heatwave as five or more consecutive days during which the daily maximum temperature surpasses the average maximum temperature by 5 °C (9 °F) or more.

“The daytime temperatures in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) are expected to remain 4-6°C higher than normal from May 21 to 27 with chances of gusty wind/thunderstorm,” the PMD said in its GLOF alert.

“This atmospheric condition [will be] potentially increasing the likelihood of triggering a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) event or flash floods in the vulnerable snow-covered and glaciated areas of GB and Chitral.”

The Met Office advised the district administrations as well as local organizations and communities to remain vigilant during this period and take precautionary measures to avoid any untoward situation.

Labourers are silhouetted as they stand on scaffoldings at a construction site during a hot and humid day in Karachi, Pakistan on May 20, 2024. (REUTERS)

Pakistan experienced its first severe heat wave in June 2015 when temperatures as high as 49 degrees Celsius struck the country’s south, causing the deaths of about 2,000 people from dehydration and heatstroke. A heat wave in Sindh’s provincial capital of Karachi that year alone claimed 120 lives.

Increased exposure to heat, and more heat waves, have been identified as one of the key impacts of climate change in Pakistan, with people experiencing extreme heat and seeing some of the highest temperatures in the world in recent years. The South Asian country of more than 241 million, one of the ten most vulnerable nations to climate change impacts, this year experienced its “wettest April since 1961,” with at least 144 people killed in thunderstorms and house collapses.

Climate change-induced extreme heat can cause illnesses such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and hyperthermia. It can make certain chronic conditions worse, including cardiovascular, respiratory, and cerebrovascular disease and diabetes-related conditions, and can also result in acute incidents, such as hospitalizations due to strokes or renal disease.

Keeping the weather predictions in view, the government in Pakistan’s Punjab province on Monday announced the closure of public and private schools from May 25 till May 31.

“In view of the surge in temperature and heat wave in the province, all public and private schools shall remain closed for seven days with effect from 25th May 2024 to 31st May 2024,” the Punjab education department said in a notification, adding that exams could be conducted during these days with necessary precautions in place.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index, nearly 10,000 Pakistanis have died while the country has suffered economic losses worth $3.8 billion due to climate change impacts between 1999 and 2018.

In 2022, torrential monsoon rains triggered the most devastating floods in Pakistan’s history, killing around 1,700 people and affecting over 33 million, a staggering number close to the population of Canada. Millions of homes, tens of thousands of schools and thousands of kilometers of roads and railways are yet to be rebuilt.