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Monday, March 16, 2009

India seeks Saudi help on Haj passports

Siraj Wahab, Arab News

JEDDAH: Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed yesterday called on the Saudi government to exempt Indians intending to perform Haj 2009 from having international passports.

The Kingdom recently ruled that only those having valid international passports would be allowed into the country for the pilgrimage. The government said the step was taken for security measures.

Until last year, pilgrims from many countries, including India, were allowed into the Kingdom on a passport of limited validity. In India, these passports are known as “pilgrim passes” and are issued without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming bureaucratic process of acquiring an international passport.

In his meeting with Deputy Haj Minister Hatem Qadi here yesterday, Ahamed sought to postpone for Indian pilgrims the application of this rule by one year. “I explained to the Saudi authorities the difficulties our pilgrims face in acquiring international passports. Most of our pilgrims are from rural areas and it is very difficult for them to acquire international passports at such short notice.”

Speaking to Arab News, Ahamed said India would ensure that all pilgrims coming for Haj 2010 had international passports. “We are only asking for a one-year waiver because it is practically impossible for those who have applied for Haj this year to get international passports in time,” he said.

The minister said the Saudi deputy Haj minister had promised to look into Indian government’s request. “It will be actively considered,” Ahamed quoted the deputy Haj minister as saying.

Other countries too have requested Saudi Arabia to relax the international passport ruling for pilgrims. “However, coming from India, the request will definitely be carefully looked at,” said Ahamed. “I have come here in person just to make this request. We have excellent ties with the Kingdom and I am very hopeful Saudis will understand our situation.”

A series of delegations comprising top Indian Muslim religious leaders have met officials at the Saudi missions in New Delhi and Mumbai making a similar request.

If the Saudi government does not agree to the waiver, then the Indian Haj Committee chief Iqbal Ahmad Saradgi said he would request his government to simplify the procedure for issuing international passports.

“As everybody knows, the procedure for getting a normal passport is very time-consuming and complex; it could cause great hardship to a large number of pilgrims, especially those coming from rural areas,” said Saradgi.

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