Haj scandal

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 February, 2004, 12:00am

The death of 54 Indonesian haj pilgrims during the stampede in Saudi Arabia this month has put the spotlight on the government. Initially, the blame for the deaths was laid at the feet of the Saudi authorities after at least 244 pilgrims died during a ritual stoning of the three pillars, symbolising the devil, in Mina.

It is one of the last rituals which Muslims must take part in to complete the haj pilgrimage.

At the time of the stampede, some two million people were crowded into the ancient site.

Saudi officials tried to put the accident down to 'Allah's will'. But the public is not buying it. 'It's ridiculous to consider the incident God's will. It happened because of poor haj management,' said Syafii Maarif, a respected Muslim leader in Indonesia.

Now, Indonesians are starting to question whether their own Religious Affairs Department, which monopolises the management of haj tours, might be partly responsible for the local fatalities.

Both former president Abdurrahman Wahid and Upper House speaker Amien Rais claim the department failed to inform Indonesian pilgrims of their scheduled time for visiting Mina.

As Korup Haji, a coalition of anti-corruption non-governmental groups, pointed out even before the tragedy, the haj pilgrimage is a nice little earner for the Religious Affairs Ministry. It not only organises permits from the Saudi government for a set number of pilgrims each year, but also acts as a travel agent, tendering out accommodation, food and transport contracts.

But each year, there is a scandal. This year, the ministry sold 30,000 extra haj tickets before the Saudi government had confirmed whether it would accept the additional pilgrims.

In the end, the Saudis declined to accept the extra number, leaving 30,000 people, who paid at least US$2,700, to wait another year to go on the haj.

Korup Haji has accused Religious Affairs Minister Said Agil Husin

al-Munawar and some of his officials of embezzling haj money and contracting out jobs to their family and friends. Activists wonder how the wealth of Mr Said, on a monthly salary of 20 million rupiah, (HK$18,500) could have more than doubled, from 1.22 billion rupiah in 2001 to 2.54 billion rupiah last year.

Even before this tragedy, Korup Haji and legislators were calling on parliament to create an independent body - answerable to the public - to manage the haj pilgrimage.