COST SHOCK: The Saudi Arabian government plans to increase the visa fees to the annual Hajj and Umrah to more than R6 000, which will affect millions of Muslims going on the pilgrimage to that country.

Johannesburg - Members of the Muslim community in South Africa attended an urgent meeting in Joburg on Sunday to discuss a proposal by the Saudi Arabian government to implement an increase of more than R6 000 in the Hajj and Umrah visa fees.

Millions of people from across the world take part in the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and Umrah, a smaller pilgrimage, each year.

Yusuf Abramjee, social activist and co-chairperson of Sunday’s meeting, said these increases would make the pilgrimage unaffordable for ordinary Muslims.

The proposed increase would see visa fees hiked up from the current 350 Saudi riyal (about R1 300) to 2 000 riyal (about R7 600).

There was uncertainty over whether the fees in question were still only a proposal or had in fact already been implemented.

“As far as we know, it has been put in place. But Umrah season hasn’t opened worldwide yet. It will open in the next few days and then we’ll see,” said Abramjee.

“The problem we’re having is that there are no answers forthcoming.” There were also concerns over a rumoured health insurance fee to be added to the visa fees.

Using the hashtag #UmrahVisaFeesMustFall, concerned Muslim community members and organisations called for the new fees to be scrapped completely.

The visa hikes have seen a global outcry, with both Egypt and Morocco suspending their Umrah operations. According to Abramjee, Turkey and Jordan have also expressed their disgust, and a number of meetings were held in India over the weekend to discuss the matter.

Moosa Akoodie, the deputy chairperson of a committee formed yesterday to pursue the matter, explained the historical and spiritual significance behind these pilgrimages.

He said every Muslim hoped to visit Mecca, the place that all Islamic prophets had visited and where Prophet Muhammad had been born and buried.

Akoodie questioned the motive behind an Islamic country making the pilgrimage difficult for followers of Islam.

“Why would you want to profit from something that is purely religious? There’s no tourism in this.

“Every Muslim in the world has the right to visit these places. Why must you turn it into a business venture?” he asked. He said the weak rand added to the pilgrimage expense.

Moulana Ebrahim Bham, the secretary-general of the Council of Muslim Theologians and co-chairperson of the meeting, said: “We haven’t been able to engage with the embassy or the Saudi government yet. We want to do this before taking any other action.” The new committee is to seek clarity on the issue, he said.

The Star