Govts should do more to improve pilgrimage for citizens

Govts should do more to improve pilgrimage for citizens
PHOTO: AFP

The devastating news came late on Friday that a crane had fallen on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, where thousands were performing the haj pilgrimage.

Pending the results of an investigation, authorities have blamed strong winds and heavy rains for the accident, which killed at least 107 people of many nationalities and injured over 230 others.

A number of Indonesians were among the dead. We extend our condolences to all victims' families.

The accident, which took place amid ongoing renovations at the Grand Mosque, reveals a further risk to the mandatory Islamic pilgrimage - that of extreme weather conditions on top of the regular climate, which is already tough for many visitors to Saudi Arabia.

Ironically, the renovation itself is part of the kingdom's response to avoid more tragedies like the 1990 accident in which 1,426 pilgrims were killed in a stampede, attributed to an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel.

Other risks in recent times include exposure to Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), against which all pilgrims are vaccinated before departure.

Given the various challenges, the world's Muslims recognise the commitment of Saudi Arabia to do their best for the "Guests of Allah", as visitors to the holiest sites under the kingdom's custody are called.

One precautionary measure during the renovations was to reduce the quota of pilgrims from each country.

As the country still sending the largest number of pilgrims despite the quota reduction - 168,000 this year - Indonesia bears a great responsibility to safeguard the well-being of its citizens going on the pilgrimage.

Following the accident, some have criticised the Saudi government for allowing the construction to continue even after the surrounding desert had been ravaged by storms, causing many to be hospitalised. We wait for the results of the investigation to prevent future calamities.

However, the Indonesian government could do much more to improve the pilgrimage for its citizens.

Improvement measures continue at a snail's pace. Indonesians have no control of their haj fund deposits, submitted to the Religious Affairs Ministry five or 10 years in advance.

The trial of former religious affairs minister Suryadharma Ali is revealing signs of long-suspected corrupt practices.

Complaints about the food provided to pilgrims have triggered better control to ensure a better menu for the majority who opt for the bare-bones class of facilities. Improvement would be fairly radical if President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo could overcome resistance to ending the ministry's control over billions of rupiah in haj funds by transferring management to an independent body.

If Jokowi succeeds, our pilgrims may be able to spend a much shorter time on their journey, as citizens of other countries do, potentially reducing the pilgrimage's risks. Although pilgrimage is not supposed to be easy in any faith, even less so in the challenging environment of the desert, families are entitled to better assurance that their loved ones can perform their religious duty and return safe and sound.

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