Hajj, Umrah operators experiencing worst-ever crisis
37 Pakistanis perform Umrah under new guidelines, but they don’t want to go back again
More than 900 people involved in the Hajj and Umrah business across the country may have to shut down their occupation in the near future because of the situation caused by the deadly coronavirus and the new procedures introduced by the Saudi authorities for the performance of the religious obligation to deal with the contagious disease, that has killed/affected millions across the world.
The unaffordable new packages are also responsible for bringing the business to the verge of closure after a year-long slump, says the chairman of the Hajj Operators Association of Pakistan chief Shahid Rafiq.
The HOAP chief told the writer that only 37 people from Pakistan visited the holy lands to perform Umrah after the resumption of the religious obligation about a month ago. But, the experience of the visitors has been so painful that nobody would like to repeat the same.
“We have been out of business for the last one year. Keeping the offices open and retaining the employees in jobs has become increasingly difficult. We don’t see a ray of hope in the times ahead; shutting the business is the only option left with us,” said a depressed HOAP chief.
He said in case the business was closed, a large number of families would be affected.
Haji Ghulam Muhammad, another person affiliated with this business for several years, has already started a general store with his son to be able to run the family.
According to him, now a two-week Umrah package can be availed for some 300,000 to 350,000 rupees, an amount unaffordable for the middle-income groups who are in majority to undertake such religious missions.
He says immediately after landing in Saudi Arabia, the Umrah pilgrims are quarantined for three days. After that, they are taken to the Grand Mosque in groups for the performance of Umrah. The rituals are completed in three hours after which the visitors are taken to Safa and Marwa where they have to complete seven rounds.
Once these rituals are over, the visitors are not allowed to enter the Grand Mosque. They can, however, offer more prayers outside the mosque compound.
Nobody is allowed to return to the Mataf to perform another Tawaf (circumambulation) or offer another prayer.
Even while performing Tawaf, nobody is allowed to enter Hateem or touch/kiss the Holy Kaaba, something very painful for the Umrah visitors.
Similar SPOs are observed in Madinah, where every visitor wants to offer 40 prayers (in eight days) to qualify for Prophet (PBUH)’s intercession for pardon on the Day of Judgment.
A visitor to the Masjid-i-Nabvi can appear before the relevant window only once to offer Salam to the Prophet (PBUH).
In his opinion, the Saudi authorities will have to review the Umrah SOPs for the convenience of the visitors.
The visitors, he said, should be allowed to offer all prayers in Haram and perform Tawaf in verandas and the rooftop, if not in Mataf.
Then, he said, the airfare for the holy journey should be brought down to make it affordable for the middle-income groups.
Haji Ghulam Muhammad is of the opinion that the government should introduce a scheme of interest-free loans to steer this crisis-hit sector out of difficulties.