Ministry ploughs ahead with haj program revamp

Ministry ploughs ahead with haj program revamp
Suryadharma Ali, former Indonesian Minister for Religious Affairs.

JAKARTA - To revamp the country's graft-ridden haj programme, the Religious Affairs Ministry has closed its doors to new haj tour organizers after permits were abused.

The ministry recently froze the licenses of seven organizers over irregularities, from failing to provide quality services to pilgrims to illegal operations.

"We revoked their permits because they ignored our warnings. We will not welcome more organizers because there's already too many," Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin said on the sidelines of a meeting at the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

There are 655 organizers operating haj and minor haj (umrah) programs for pilgrims.

"We will closely monitor the performance of these organizers and will not hesitate to impose severe punishment whenever irregularities are found," the United Development Party (PPP) politician said.

Besides banning permits for new haj and umrah organizers, the ministry's haj and umrah directorate general has assigned 120 visa providers, which are granted official permits to issue visas to pilgrims, to sign an integrity pact.

According to ministry director general for haj and minor haj Abdul Jamil, such a requirement aims to avoid corrupt practices, which in the past included the illegal issuances of visas, which disadvantaged pilgrims.

"The integrity pact will ban those providers from helping illegal haj and umrah organizers to obtain visas for pilgrims," Abdul said.

He added that the 120 providers who obtained licenses to arrange visas for pilgrims were only those who had official partners in Saudi Arabia.

Nurturing the accountability of haj and minor haj organizers has added to the list of actions taken by the ministry to improve the haj business in Indonesia, a business that affects the lives of the country's Muslims, which account for around 90 per cent of the estimated 250 million population.

While improving the accountability of businesses, Lukman also announced the government would prioritize first-time pilgrims this year to give equal opportunities to prospective pilgrims.

He added that such a policy would also favour the elderly, particularly those 70 years old and above who had been on the waiting list for decades.

"Shame on those who have repeatedly gone on the haj just because they can afford it. They have deprived others of their rights. Muslims are only obliged to perform the haj once in a lifetime and we are working to make people aware of this," said Lukman.

The ministry has been in the spotlight on several occasions concerning the misuse of funds regarding haj management.

Former religious affairs minister Suryadharma Ali has been named a suspect by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) for allegedly abusing the 2012-2013 haj funds accounting for more than Rp 1 trillion (S$106 million) in state losses.

Suryadharma, who was stripped of his ministerial post after being named a suspect last year, also stands accused of committing multiple offences relating to pilgrims' transportation, housing and catering services in Saudi Arabia as well as flying dozens of family members and associates to Saudi Arabia using haj quotas intended for other pilgrims.

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