By Ali Macabalang
COTABATO CITY – The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has not suspended the issuance of visa for its hosting this year of the annual obligatory or major hajj amid the lingering threat brought about by the dreaded coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), officials of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) clarified Sunday.
What the Saudi government suspended was the grant of visa for prospective tourists and visitors seeking to perform umrah (minor or optional hajj), which is usually done anytime of the year, NCMF spokesman Jun Alonto-Datu Ramos told the Bulletin.
Datu Ramos said Eisa Abdulrahman Almalki, Charge ‘D Affaires of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in the Philippines, visited the NCMF Central Office in Quezon City on Saturday, and briefed Secretary Saidamen Pangarungan about the context of his government’s recent advisory.
Almalki confirmed his government’s announcement on the suspension of visa issuance for tourists and umrah, with a clarification that such precautionary measure was just temporary and that there was “no COVID-19 patient” reported yet in Saudi Arabia.
Datu Ramos, a physician himself, posted on Facebook photos of Almalik and Pangarungan, whom President has officially designated as amirul hajj or head of Philippine pilgrimage delegation for this year.
After the Saudi envoy’s visit, he said, Pangarungan wrote an official announcement stating that preparations by the NCMF for the conduct of the upcoming regular annual hajj will go on as scheduled.
Pangarungan’s advisory pointed out the absence of COVID-19 outbreak in Saudi Arabia, the monarch state’s precautionary measures against possible entry of the dreaded virus in its domain, and the “temporary nature” of the suspension of visa issuance for tourists, visitors and umrah pilgrims.
Umrah is an optional pilgrimage that can be performed anytime of the year, while hajj or mandatory Islamic ritual set every Zul Hijjah, the last month of Muslim calendar equivalent to segments of July and August in the current western calendar.
Hajj is mandated for every physically and financially capable Muslim to perform at least once in a lifetime as one of the five pillars of Islam.
The cost of regular hajj for each Filipino pilgrim nowadays is estimated at about P250,000 covering round-trip plane fares and mutawwif fees for hotel accommodation, foods and land transport while in Saudi Arabia.
Last year, 6,973 NCMF-registered pilgrims enjoyed hajj cost reduction between P10,000 and P30,000 each, making the Philippines as the lone nation with reduced rates resulting from“fervent representations with Saudi government entities” by Pangarungan, according to Datu Ramos.
The cost for pilgrims from other nations usually increase yearly in conformity with the global inflations, it was learned.
Meanwhile, published reports by Saudi media networks said that amid increasing COVID-19 cases elsewhere, the caretaker of the two grand mosques in Madina and Makkah has mandated the ground cleansing of such shrines be undertaken four times daily.
The two Islamic shrines usually brim with an average of five million pilgrims from across the globe during hajj season, something Saudi authorities wanted to safeguard from the COVID-19 virus, online news reports said.
The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) in its recent news post appreciated Saudi Arabia’s precautions against the virus.