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By JULIEN NEAVES Thursday, October 3 2013

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THERE were tears and heartbreak yesterday at Piarco International Airport for a group of 87 local Muslims who were denied visas to Saudi Arabia to perform the annual sacred Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.

The Hajj is the fifth and final pillar of Islam and every Muslim is duty-bound to perform it at least once in their lifetime once they are able-bodied and can afford it.

Yesterday at the airport some members of the group had returned from Caracas, Venezuela where they had been denied visas by the Embassy of Saudi Arabia. With the denial of the visas they have lost about $20,000 for hotel, meals, transport and accommodation to perform the Hajj, though their plane ticket to Saudi Arabia was still valid for the year.

One of the group, 72-year-old Mansoor Mohammed from Chaguanas, was in tears yesterday.

“When I reached across I was denied the visa to go. How I feel in my heart, brothers and sisters who went and didn’t get the opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia. They are very hurt,” he said.

Organiser and group spokesperson Imtiaz Mohammed, president of The Islamic Missionaries Guild of the Caribbean and South America, told the gathering, “I stand before you in solidarity with my 87 Muslim brothers and sisters whom have been denied their wish to travel to the holy land of Makkah (Mecca) and Madina to perform a sacred pillar of Islam called Hajj.”

He reported that in this country there are four authorised Hajj organisations and each is given a certain quota of people they can carry sanctioned by the Saudi government. Saudi diplomatic officers visit this country to deliver the visas. Mohammed’s group, however, was not one of those licenced organisations and had to apply directly to the embassy in Caracas.

He claimed that for decades the authorised organisations have delivered short to the people who travelled with them on this sacred pilgrimage and people did not always get what they paid for in terms of hotels, meals and transport.

“On return to Trinidad people would relate the inefficiencies and broken promises they got which have caused these authorised organisations to lose big profits,” he said.

He also claimed that the cost of the trip kept going up every year and was $49,500; the cost for his group was $35,000. He noted that about five years ago the Muslim public asked to have other people take them to Hajj and some responded, like his group. He noted that they connected with authorised groups in the United States and started taking people from Trinidad to Hajj over the past few years.

He said the Saudi Embassy agreed to issue visas to unlicenced Hajj dealers over these years, but were denied for the first time this year.

Mohammed claimed they were denied the visas because of a letter sent to the Saudia Arabia Embassy in Venezuela by the authorised Hajj operators in Trinidad which made “malicious allegations” against the unlicenced operators. He noted that some of the people in his group may not live to attend next year’s Hajj or may not be able to afford it.

Licenced operator Omar Mohammed, in a brief telephone interview last night, denied the accusation and said the Hajj council had nothing to do with their denial.

Imam of the Felicity Muslim Organisation, Rasheed Karim, said his two children were denied visas and it was “very painful for me to see my children here in this atmosphere”.

He said their faces were lit like a Christmas tree before, but after being denied visas, the lights have dimmed in their faces.

Sobbing as she spoke, Zanita Baksh, 69, from Valencia, said she was also “very hurt” about the denial.

“Please to these people, (let them) get their act together. Do the right thing. Please unto Allah. And stop denying people from going to the Hajj,” she said.

Hamzah Mohammed, 21, from Chaguanas, said he spent the night in the airport in Caracas.

“I hope all this could stop. Right now my heart is aching, paining, looking forward to go. (It’s my) first time, (I) took vacation from work, this cannot work out. We have to put a stop to this,” he said.

Mohammed (Imtiaz) took the opportunity to thank Government officials, including the Prime Minister and National Security Minister Gary Griffith, for assisting in having one of the groups travel to Caracas without passports; the passports were sent ahead with one of the organisers in Venezuela who was liaising with the Saudi Arabian Embassy.

Legal advisor for the San Juan Ladies Muslim Association and former Senator Nafeesa Mohammed, commenting on the issue, told Newsday yesterday, “My heart goes out to all those persons who would have made that sacrifice and would have taken their lifetime savings and would apply it to this once in a lifetime journey.” She recalled that last year she was one of about 130 pilgrims who, days before the time for departure into the holy lands, had difficulties in obtaining the visas. She noted that based on various interventions the matter was resolved. She had travelled with a licenced tour operator.

Mohammed, also chairman of the San Juan/Laventille Regional Corporation, noted that there was some competition locally among Hajj operators.

“It is imperative for us in the Muslim community in Trinidad and Tobago, and particularly those persons who have any involvement with respect to the Hajj pilgrimage, we should be able to come together and engage in some meaningful dialogue because the way forward will involve matters of diplomacy,” she said.

She noted that a lot of construction work was taking place in the holy cities of Makkah (Mecca) and Madina and there were additional restrictions on those who want to perform the Hajj simply to control the numbers of people granted visas.

She said there were other aspects that needed to be resolved locally and appealed for leaders in the Muslim community, with knowledge and experience, to come together and engage in meaningful dialogue on the issue.

She encouraged the Muslims who were denied visas that Allah is in control and not to despair.

Acting Foreign Affairs Minister Surujrattan Rambachan told Newsday he was aware of the situation and had spoken with the Trinidad and Tobago Ambassador in Venezuela, Anthony Edghill. “It is unfortunate they were not granted the visas,” he said.

He noted he did not have information as yet on why they were not granted the visas and added that the Saudi Arabia Embassy did not have to communicate this. He said he will be following up the situation to try to get a better understanding of what happened.

He noted that the Hajj is very important to the Muslim community and something people plan for a major part of their life. This year the Hajj will be held from Sunday, October 13 to Friday, October 18.

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