DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/13 Feb) – Muslims who plan to go on pilgrimage to Makkah have to register early because of the new E-track monitoring system imposed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
“We have to set and observe early deadlines this year for intending pilgrims because we need to input the data into the E-system by the start of the month of Ramadhan,” Secretary Mehol Sadain of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, told the 2nd ARMM LGU Summit on Governance and Development on Tuesday morning.
Sadain, also the Amirul Hajj or head of the Philippine Hajj Mission, led a mission to Saudi Arabia on January 17 to 26, where they negotiated seven contracts on housing, transportation and food for the pilgrims.
He explained that Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj has set up its Integrated Electronic System or E-track which “links the Hajj visa of every pilgrim to a package of services consisting of specific elements such as housing, transportation and food service, which should be clearly stated … so that the pilgrim can identify these elements in advance before arrival at the Kingdom (of Saudi Arabia).”
He said the E-track, according to the Saudi Arabian government, will improve the service, promote transparency in terms of clarity of procedures and types and costs of service packages, and serve as “control and monitoring.”
The consequence, however, is that “we have to set and observe early deadlines this year for intending pilgrims because we need to input the data into the E-System by the start of the month of Ramadhan.”
He said deadlines will be stricter otherwise visas won’t be issued by Saudi Arabia.
Sadain said that for 2014, the NCMF is asking for 8,000 visas for the pilgrims but the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will likely issue about 6,400 or less 20%, “just like last year.”
Ramadhan this year is expected to begin either June 28 or 29 and applications and registration will begin first week of March to end of June, Sadain said.
The Hajj this year is on the first week of October but Sadain told MindaNews pilgrims usually start going to Saudi Arabia a month earlier. Pilgrims stay a minimum of ten days to a maximum of two months, he said.
Sadain said other countries get the best buildings for the Hajj because they bring money with them when they make arrangements with housing, transport and food providers in Saudi Arabia.
The Philippines, he said, negotiates only verbally (“laway lang”) so that the best buildings usually go to the pilgrims in other countries whose governments negotiate the contracts good for 10 to 15 years.
Sadain said that this year, Governor Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has “pledged to support us by loaning us some money for 2014” amounting to P30 million “help us finance the deposit for buildings we will be getting for the Hajj.”
Sadain said the expected 6,400 visas that would be issued by Saudi Arabia are “enough to accommodate the pilgrims.”
But in the last two years, he said, Muslims from other countries who are working in the Philippines, have been allowed by the Saudi Embassy in Manila to go on Hajj from the Philippines, provided they have an ACR or alien certificate of registration and they join the Philippine delegation, even as they use their own passports.
“This year, more foreigners might come in and compete with Filipino pilgrims for the visa slots” of 6,400, Sadain said.
He told the crowd of mayors, governors and legislators in the five-province, 116-towns and two-city region that in Malaysia and Indonesia, would be pilgrims who have fully paid still have to wait for five to ten years before they can go on Hajj because of the visa quota.
Last year, he said, the Philippines had a surplus of a little over 1,000 slots for the visas.
Pilgrimage Savings Plan
Sadain also announced a memorandum of understanding with the Al Amanah Islamic Investment Bank, the only Islamic bank in the country which is now offering a facility for would be pilgrims: the Pilgrimage Savings Plan (PSP), a guaranteed safe custody of the money they want to save to be able to go on Hajj.
At present, he said, the cost of going on Hajj is from P150,000 to P200,000.
Under this scheme, the would be pilgrim can choose from four plans: 12 months, 60 months, 120 months or 10 years and 180 months or 15 years.
Sadain said he suggested to the bank a plan for two, three or four years.
He said the would be pilgrim can come up with a minimum deposit of 100,000 pesos, payable one time or by installment, and get a provisional reservation for a visa slot, depending on the plan he/she chooses.
If the plan is one year and it is for the entire amount of the cost of Hajj, the would be pilgrim is guaranteed a visa slot the following year, when he/she is expected to have paid the full amount.
He said the bank will communicate with the NCMF on the would be pilgrims’ PSP and the NCMF will be reserving a visa slot for the year they are expected to complete the payments.
Sadain explained that the PSP will help increase the capitalization of the bank. The NCMF can then loan money from the bank to pay for deposit for the providers in Saudi Arabia so that “we can get the best that our money can afford” especially in Makkah and Madinah.
He said the PSP will help not only the pilgrims but also the bank and the NCMF.
Like any bank deposit, the amount can be withdrawn by the depositor should he or she need the money for other purposes but because this is a special fund, a 30-day notice is needed, he said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)