Stranded no more: 231 Hajj pilgrims now on their way to Mecca 

CAGAYAN DE ORO (MindaNews / 02 July) –The remaining 231 stranded Muslim pilgrims finally left for Mecca in Saudi Arabia on Friday night and Saturday, ending two weeks of stressful delay at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Malo Manonggirin, officer in charge of the Bureau of Pilgrimage and Empowerment at the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos’ (NCMF) said 171 left Friday evening and the last batch of 60 on Saturday. 

This year’s Hajj is from July 7 to 12. The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam which every adult Muslim must do at least once in his or her lifetime. 

The Philippine Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of Officer in Charge-Consul General Rommel A. Romato, welcomes the pilgrims bound for Makkah via Riyadh, on July 1, 2022. The last 231 stranded pilgrims flew to Riyadh on Friday evening and Saturday. Photo courtesy of NCMF

Saudi Arabia opened the holy city of Mecca for a million foreign and domestic pilgrims this year.  Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 2.5 million would go to Mecca to perform the Hajj but the number was limited to 10,000 domestic pilgrims in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, and 60,000 domestic pilgrims in 2021, the second year of the pandemic. 

It is the first time this year that foreign pilgrims are being allowed but they must be under 65, fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and are required to submit a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours before departure for Saudi Arabia. 

At least 966 pilgrims – not 3,200 as other reports indicate — mostly from Lanao del Sur, were stranded at the NAIA since June 19 because of the delay in the release of their visas. 

NCMF Commissioner Yusoph Mando said  Philippine embassy officials led by Consul General Rommel Romato welcomed those who arrived in Riyadh last Thursday.

“Alhamdulillah! All of the pilgrims can leave for the Hajj,” Mando said.

The plight of the Muslim pilgrims left stranded for days in NAIA prompted Lanao del Sur’s congressional representatives —  first-termer Zia Alonto Adiong (1st District) and Yasser Alonto Balindong (2nd District) to call for an investigation. 

In a statement on June 28, Adiong and Balindong said they want to trace the root causes why this incident happened despite the yearly Hajj pilgrimages.

“There is a glaring lack of concern and empathy for Muslim Filipinos and we cannot stand idly as their energy and resources wear thin,” they said. 

They added that the problem on stranded pilgrims could have been prevented because Muslim Filipinos make the annual pilgrimage, except for the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021. 

The two said they could not understand why existing policies failed despite the coordination between the NCMF and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). 

They noted that the NCMF through the BPE, is primarily responsible for the administration of the annual Hajj preparations for Muslim Filipinos in the Philippines and this year,  eve implemented an electronic Hajj (eHajj) registration from January 25 to February 24, as part of efforts to make registration easier for those intending to perform the Hajj.

On May 21, the DFA, through the Office of Consular Affairs, announced that it was working with the NCMF to extend passport assistance by opening walk-in accommodations at the courtesy lane of the DFA in all consular offices nationwide but the delays still happened. 

“Given the urgency and importance of the Hajj as one of the pillars of our faith, there is no excuse for the suffering that these delays have caused – and cost – our fellow Muslim Filipinos,” the Joint Statement read. 

In a statement issued on June 27, a day before Adiong’s and Balindong’s, reelected Basilan Representative Mujiv Hatmaan also called for a congressional review, “into the reported failure” of the NCMF to secure travel visas for the Hajj pilgrims stranded in Metro Manila.

“We should hold accountable all those responsible for this mess,” he said. 

Hataman added the need to study the process of coordination between the NCMF and other agencies of government and what amendments can be introduced to the law, to check if there was neglect or errors that led to the mess

“O baka naman kailangan na nating pag-aralan kung dapat bang sa private sector na natin ibigay ang Hajj coordination tulad ng ginagawa sa ibang bansa. (Or maybe we should already study if we should give the Hajj coordination to the private sector as other countries are doing), Hataman, who was governor of the defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao from December 2011 to February 2019, said. 

Nearly a thousand pilgrims were stranded because of the cancelled flights, he said. 

Hataman noted that one of the mandates of NCMF is to coordinate, through its Bureau of Pilgrimage and Endowment, the Hajj pilgrimage of Muslim Filipinos and aid in their travel to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

“However, the flights bound for KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) last June 19, 20 and 21 were canceled, leaving nearly a thousand pilgrims stranded,” he said.

He called on the NCMF and concerned government agencies such as local governments and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM)  to look into the situation of the pilgrims. 

“Moral governance requires us to be pro-active in looking after the welfare of these stranded Muslim pilgrims,” Hataman said, adding that many of the pilgrims had spent their pocket money intended for their Hajj and may no longer have money for their daily sustenance while stranded. He said they should be assisted and attended to, not left behind to fend for themselves. 

He said the NCMF has funds “para sa mga ganitong klaseng problema, bakit hindi gamitin? Let us show compassion sa ating mga kapatid na Muslim na nasa ganitong sitwasyon ngayon dahil sa kapabayaan ng iilan.”

He said this problem should not be repeated anymore. “We want a better piligrimage experience for Muslim Filipinos,” he said, adding he wants to see how Congress can help the NCMF to avoid a repeat of this problem. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)