From the news desk

Public meetings called to tackle umrah visa issue

Umrah tour operators are meeting this weekend in a bid to avert a crisis in the umrah industry, amid a public outcry over the cost of umrah visas.  South African Muslims are up in arms, with some calling for a boycott of the umrah. While there is very little information coming through from the Saudi Kingdom, authorities announced that the visa increases would come into effect from October.  However, the visas will not affect pilgrims for haj or umrah travelling to the country for the first time.  Umrah and business travel will cost 2,000 Saudi riyals for a single-entry visa. This could mean South Africans will pay up to R10 000 per visa.

For all other travellers, entry visas will also cost more. For example, a multiple-entry visa now costs 3,000 Saudi riyals for six months, 5,000 Saudi riyals for a year and 8,000 Saudi riyals for two years.

In Cape Town, the South African Travel Haj Operators Association (Sathoa) has invited ulema and the general public to a meeting on Sunday 16th October. The meeting will take place at the Abbey Hall at Wynberg high school in Ottery Road in Wynberg at 11am.

“It’s important that we make the general public aware of what the current situation is. We have had many enquiries.  We know that December is a very high season for South Africans. If the increased visas are in effect, it will impact on a lot of people,” said Sathoa chairperson Sedick Steenkamp.

Jamiatul Ulama’s Maulana Ebrahim Bham told Radio Islam on Friday that “the matter was shrouded in mystery”.

“No one knows what’s happening. Sahuc said they have written to the Saudi embassy for clarification and the embassy has said nothing. We see the media reports that the visa fees will come into effect from October. At the end of the day, we need to raise these concerns,” he said.

Bham warned that the haj and umrah would “slowly but surely” be accessed only by the wealthy elite.

“It takes away the poor person’s right and capacity to visit Makkah and Madina…and that is of great concern. Are we going to make umrah and haj something that is only affordable to the wealthy, while the poor, the majority of the ummah, have such a burning desire to visit the sacred sites, but yet it’s out of reach?”

In Johannesburg, social activist Yusuf Abramjee has started an Interim Committee Opposed to Proposed Visa Fees. The entrepreneur is now lobbying Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom and the South African government to intervene in this matter.  The public is being mobilized to a meeting at the Jisa centre in Crosby, Johannesburg at 11am on Sunday, which will be co-chaired by the Jamiatul Ulama South Africa.

“We have to talk about this issue as it affects thousands of South Africans and even those who travel on business to Saudi Arabia. We need a united front… we need to raise our voices on this matter,” he said.

The matter has also led to one concerned group starting a petition on called “Umrah Fees Must Fall”, which has so far garnered more than 8500 signatures. The petition can be signed here: VOC

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