Hyderabad, Oct 1: With Saudi authorities tightening visa rules for Umrah (minor pilgrimage), thousands of Indian Muslims could not visit the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina this Ramazan.
Muslims make a beeline for Umrah during Ramazan as Islamic traditions hold that an Umrah during this holy month is equal to a Haj (major pilgrimage). Moreover, those who fail to get Haj permits in the draw of lots (Qurrah) conducted by the Haj Committee prefer Umrah during Ramazan.
According to a rough estimate, around 50,000 Indian Muslims perform Umrah every year. About 8000 Hyderabadis usually visit the holy cities during Ramazan every year for Umrah. But this year only a few hundred Hyderabadis could make it to the minor pilgrimage. Travel agency sources point out that a whopping 30,000 to 40,000 Umrah aspirants from different parts of the country could not secure the visas.
The Saudi authorities closed the Umrah counter on September 20 and this will open only after the completion of the Haj. "The new restrictions have affected thousands of Muslims in India. Saudi government has launched a drive against "over stayers". An estimated 50000 people who went on Umrah visas are overstaying in the kingdom. The stringent new laws has brought down the Umrah quota for Muslim dominant cities like Hyderabad. Only a few hundred people performed Umrah from the city this time," a representative of a major Haj and Umrah travel agency in Hyderabad said.
Zakaullah Siddiqui of Zahereen Travels, Mumbai, told this correspondent on telephone that the early closure of Umrah counter had affected Indians and Muslims from other South Asian countries. "Those below 40 years of age are denied visas. Even those above 40 years are barred from performing Umrah if they are travelling individually. Those travelling in groups or with family members are given visas," he said.
While September 20 was the last date for submission of application forms, the last of visas will be issued on October 8. Umrah visa holders should leave the Saudi kingdom on or before October 28 as the Haj session will start after this date. And if anyone who is holding Umrah visa remain in the country after October 28 will be declared as "illegal alien".
The Ministry of Haj, Saudi Arabia, has announced that the number of overstaying Umrah pilgrims from a country will be deducted from its quota of Haj pilgrims. This is being done to discourage the pilgrims from staying beyond the validity of their visas.
This new restriction has led to a reduction in the Haj quota for some countries. As against the Haj quota of about 6,500 pilgrims for Andhra Pradesh, the Haj Committee received over 9000 applications. Those rejected for Haj applied for Umrah and the new rules have played with the Umrah aspirants.
Even Saudi firms looking of Umrah pilgrims said there was a drop of 20 per cent Umrah visitors to the Kingdom this Ramazan.
Most of the charitable and religious organisations as also madarasas send their representatives to Saudi Arabia on Umrah during Ramazan for collection of Zakat. Even senior clergy were denied visas. Several madarasas in and around Hyderabad get Zakat in large quantities enough to manage the institution till the next Ramazan.
Moulana Anwar Ahmad of Jamia Nizamia said the denial of visas for Umrah would affect the functioning of several religious institutions which largely depend on Zakat funds from Saudi Arabia.
Around 400 representatives of madarasas and Islamic institutions visit on Umrah during Ramazan for Zakat collection. This year hardly a dozen of them could succeed in obtaining visas.
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