COLOMBO: The Sri Lankan government has announced that Muslims would be allowed to perform Hajj this year provided they pay their travel costs in foreign currency, as the country faces its worst economic crisis in recent memory.
Last month, Sri Lanka’s umbrella association of pilgrimage organizers said its members would suspend operations because the cost of sending worshippers to Makkah — estimated at $10 million — would be too high for the country to bear when it is struggling with the worst financial downturn since independence in 1948, and has already defaulted on its foreign debt repayments.
The suspension was conditionally lifted by Religious Affairs Minister Vidura Wickremanayake on Tuesday, following consultations with Muslim parliamentarians and Environment Minister Naseer Ahamed, who also oversees Middle Eastern affairs.
“At the request of the Muslim groups led by Minister Ahamed, we have decided to fulfil the quota of pilgrims by requesting them to pay for their Hajj package in foreign currencies, which will not affect our national economy,” Wickremanayake told Arab News.
“I have requested the central bank to work out the modalities of working out this pilgrimage and they would help them find an easy passage to and from Makkah this year.”
Muslims make up almost 10 percent of the country’s population of 22 million, which is predominantly Buddhist.
This year, the country has been allocated a quota of 1,585 pilgrims to perform the Hajj, after Saudi Arabia announced it would allow 1 million foreign and domestic Muslims to travel to the holy sites in Makkah.
While it is unlikely that Sri Lanka would fill the entire quota, Ahamed, who discussed the issue with Wickremanayake, said that even sending a reduced number of pilgrims this year would help the country keep its allocation. This year’s number is already lower than in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic upended Hajj travel.
“Since the pilgrims have been asked to pay for their package in foreign currencies, we cannot expect to make use of the full quota this year. But it’s good to take some pilgrims to keep Sri Lanka’s quota intact for next year too when things would get eased,” Ahamed told Arab News.
“Three years ago, we got a Hajj quota of nearly 4,000 and this year we do not want to miss this 1,585 quota for Lankan pilgrims.”
One of Islam’s five main pillars of faith, the Hajj was restricted over coronavirus fears to just 1,000 people residing in Saudi Arabia in 2020. Last year, the Kingdom allowed 60,000 domestic participants, compared with the pre-pandemic number of 2.5 million.
Prospective Sri Lankan pilgrims have to file their applications with the Ministry of Religious Affairs by Friday.
“I have asked those interested to make the necessary applications to the department of Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs on or before June 10,” said Ibrahim Sahib Ansar, director of the ministry’s department overseeing the logistics.
“There are 86 Hajj travel operators and some 15 reputed agents will be selected from them and the operations will be streamlined through them,” he added.