Cape Town - A Cape Town umrah operator is at the centre of a furious legal storm, after being accused of cheating more than a hundred pilgrims out of their money and leaving them stranded in Cape Town.
Umrah is a pilgrimage to Mecca which, unlike the hajj, may be undertaken at any time of the year.
Devastated pilgrims say the operator, Sheikh Faizel Karstens, failed to deliver the umrah services they paid for.
The Albertus family, who forked out more than R300 000 for the trip, secured a temporary court order against Karstens last week after attempts to contact the travel operator failed.
Thaabit Albertus said he and 17 of his relatives, several of them young children, had been booked to leave last Tuesday for Saudi Arabia, for their visit to Mecca.
Albertus said they became suspicious when, on the departure date, they had yet to receive communication about their itinerary.
“When, on December 24, it became clear that (the tour operators) were not going to meet their obligations in terms of our agreement, we were forced to take this course of action to protect our rights and those of all the other pilgrims.”
Albertus said they were granted an urgent order by the Western Cape High Court against Karstens and Al Faisal Travel and Tours for the return of their passports, with their visas.
The court has also interdicted the umrah operator from accessing its bank account pending the next court date, set for January 21, when the matter is to be heard.
“We had no alternative but to do this to ensure money would not continue to flow out of the business to the detriment of those who received absolutely no benefit after parting with their hard-earned cash,” Albertus said.
Although the family had not filed a complaint with police, he could not “exclude this possibility, depending on how the matter unravels”.
Albertus said that most of the travellers were devastated when they discovered they would not be leaving.
“Many people were tearful and in shock.
“Some pilgrims have attempted to contact Karstens for compensation, to no avail.”
The Albertus family have urged those affected to join them in their court action.
Representing the family, Suleiman Chotia, of J Ramages Attorneys, said Karstens had until January 21 to show cause why the order should not be made final.
Chotia said the order included permission for the interdict to be served on Karstens by e-mail.
As ordered by the court, Karstens had contacted him on Christmas Day to inform him where his clients’ passports would be delivered.
“The passports were returned,” Chotia said.
“The court order freezing the tour operator’s bank accounts was served on First National Bank on Friday morning.”
Chotia said a further 13 people were joining the court action against Al Faisal Travel and Tours.
Haj Watch spokesman Jakes Rawat urged those affected to contact the organisation and expose unscrupulous operators.
“Over the years people have lost their life savings to operators,” he said.
“They have lost money, and the opportunity to make the journey of a lifetime, all because there was no protection and proper regulations to protect them.”
Rawat added that the opportunity for the affected group to go on umrah had been lost.
“What we need is strong regulation,” he said.
“There should be a guarantee that if there is a failure of delivery, pilgrims will get their money back.”
Karstens could not be reached on his cellphone for comment, with all calls being diverted to voicemail.