Pakistan receives ‘slow response’ for Hajj applications under government scheme amid inflation 

A Pakistani Hajj pilgrim arrives at The Hajj Complex in Islamabad, Pakistan, on August 23, 2016. (AFP/File)
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Updated 06 December 2023
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Pakistan receives ‘slow response’ for Hajj applications under government scheme amid inflation 

  • Pakistan received only 13,000 applications for Hajj 2024 for government scheme in 10 days against quota of 89,605 pilgrims 
  • Religion ministry official says government may extend date for Hajj applications to encourage ‘positive response’ from people 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s government has received only 13,000 applications for the Hajj 2024 pilgrimage in 10 days against a quota of 89,605 pilgrims, an official confirmed on Wednesday, citing inflation as one of the reasons for the applicants’ “slow response.” 

 Hajj is an annual Islamic pilgrimage that has been in practice for over 1,400 years. It is one of the five pillars of Islam, and requires every adult Muslim to undertake a journey to the holy Islamic sites in Makkah at least once in their lifetime (if they are financially and physically able). 

Pakistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs invited Hajj 2024 applications under the government’s scheme from Nov. 27 and the process will continue till Dec. 12. The quota for Pakistanis performing the pilgrimage under the government’s scheme next year is 89,605, with the pilgrimage expected to cost Rs1,075,000 [$3,769] per head. 

“We have received around 13,000 applications for Hajj so far in 10 days under the government scheme,” Umar Butt, the religion ministry’s spokesperson, told Arab News. 

“Inflation and opening of early Hajj applications may be the reasons behind a slow response from the applicants.” 

Pakistan’s consumer price index (CPI) jumped 29.2 percent in November on a year-on-year basis, the country’s statistics bureau said earlier this month. Prices went up by 2.7 percent in November as compared to a 1 percent increase in the month before. 

Butt added that Pakistan failed to fulfill its Hajj quota in 2023 following which it surrendered a quota of 8,000 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. 

This year, Saudi Arabia restored Pakistan’s pre-coronavirus Hajj quota of 179,210 pilgrims and lifted the upper age limit of 65 years to perform the pilgrimage. More than 81,000 Pakistani pilgrims performed Hajj under the government scheme in 2023 while the rest used private tour operators. 

Speaking about the Hajj sponsorship scheme, Butt said the government has so far received below 1,000 applications against an allocated quota of 25,000 pilgrims. 

The ‘Sponsorship Scheme Hajj’ was introduced by the government this year, allowing overseas Pakistanis to apply for Hajj or sponsor someone in Pakistan for the journey by paying in US dollars. In return, applicants would not have to participate in the balloting process. 

This year, the government’s Hajj sponsorship scheme could only attract 7,000 applications against a total quota of 44,000. The numbers were a setback for Pakistan as the South Asian country hoped to generate $194 million from the scheme out of the total $284 million required for its 2023 Hajj operation.

“The government may decide to extend the Hajj applications date to encourage a positive response from applicants,” Butt said.

He, however, said if Pakistan failed to receive the required number of Hajj applications, it would once again have to surrender its quota of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. 

Butt said the government initiated the process of inviting Hajj 2024 applications early following a request from Saudi Arabia as the kingdom wanted to arrange accommodation, transportation, and other facilities for pilgrims on time. 

Applicants for next year’s Hajj would also not be required to submit COVID-19 immunization certificates as the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the disease no longer a public health emergency, Butt said. 

This year, Saudi Arabia has also included Karachi in its Makkah Route Initiative, following successful operations in Islamabad. The initiative allows pilgrims performing Hajj under the government scheme the convenience of undergoing all immigration requirements to enter Saudi Arabia from their home countries’ airports. 

Islamabad has also requested the kingdom to include Lahore airport in the project to facilitate more Pakistani pilgrims. 


Pakistan’s national airline to seek help from Canadian authorities after two more cabin crew slip away

Updated 11 sec ago
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Pakistan’s national airline to seek help from Canadian authorities after two more cabin crew slip away

  • Steward Jibran Baloch, Airhostess Maryam Raza flew to Toronto this week but did not show up for return flights
  • At least 10 PIA crew have slipped in Canada in last two years due to ‘easy access to asylum’ there, the airline says

KARACHI: The Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) is planning to seek the help from the country’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and Canadian immigration authorities after two attendants on its flights to Toronto slipped away in Canada this week, a PIA spokesperson said on Saturday, adding the latest incident marked the 10th such case in a span of two years.

The development comes amid a noticeable surge in the number of Pakistani nationals attempting to reach developed countries in Europe and North America through irregular means in recent years, driven by their desire to escape challenging economic conditions at home.

In June last year, a weathered trawler carrying more than 750 irregular migrants, including 350 from Pakistan, sank near Greece, prompting Pakistani officials to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Greek authorities to enhance cooperation against human traffickers and avert similar tragedies in future.

The recent disappearance of two PIA employees, Flight Steward Jibran Baloch and Airhostess Maryam Raza, in Canada suggests the emergence of a similar trend among white-collar workers in the country. Baloch, who was aboard the Toronto-bound PK-782 flight on Feb. 29, failed to report back, while Raza, who flew to Toronto, did not show up for the return flight PK-784 to Karachi.

Confirming both incidents, PIA spokesperson Abdullah Khan said the airline, after implementing several measures, had decided to seek assistance from the FIA and Canadian immigration authorities to locate and bring back the missing cabin crew.

“Now we are planning some action through the FIA and Canadian immigration authorities,” Khan told Arab News. “Approaching them both.”

The development comes more than a month after Airhostess Faiza Mukhtar, assigned to PIA flight PK-781, disappeared in Canada in January.

With three such cases this year, Khan said, the number of airline crew who “vanished” in the North American country had now reached 10 over the last two years, a trend he attributed to “easy access to asylum and general trend of people trying to flee the country.”

Khan said the airline had implemented various measures, including profiling and restricting crew to those aged 50 and above as well as retaining passports with the station manager upon arrival at foreign destinations, but none had proven effective in preventing the crew members from slipping away.

“A lot of things have been tried so far from profiling to sending only 50+ crew to retaining passports with the station manager upon arrival,” he said. “Nothing has worked.”

Pakistan has witnessed an economic meltdown over the last more than a year, with inflation hitting record highs, local currency devaluing and costs of living rising to unprecedented levels.

The situation has forced many young Pakistanis to leave the country, some even risking their lives, in search of greener pastures abroad.


Pakistan rebuts Indian claim of seizing narcotics from boat with suspected Pakistani links

Updated 29 min 11 sec ago
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Pakistan rebuts Indian claim of seizing narcotics from boat with suspected Pakistani links

  • Indian authorities this week claimed to seize a vessel off Gujarat carrying more than 3,000 kilograms of narcotics
  • Pakistan says the boat was operating in international waters near Omani coast, Indian Navy ship towed it till Gujarat

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Friday rebutted India’s claim of seizing a huge consignment of narcotics from a fishing vessel “off the coast of Gujarat” with suspected Pakistani links.

Indian authorities this week claimed to seize the vessel carrying more than 3,000 kilograms of narcotics and arrest five crew members who allegedly had links with Pakistan, according to a report published by the Times of Indian newspaper.

Describing the development as a “grand success,” Indian Home Minister Amit Shah said the operation making “the biggest offshore seizure of drugs” was a testament to Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s commitment to making the nation drug-free.

The Pakistan Navy denied the Indian claim, saying the boat had been operating in international waters near the Omani coast and was towed by an Indian Navy ship till the Gujarat coast.

“It is clarified that information about the boat was provided to both Indian Navy and Pakistan Navy. The boat was actually operating in international waters near Omani coast and was heading south. Indian captured the boat and towed it from the western area of North Arabian Sea till coast of Gujarat,” Pakistan Navy said in a statement.

“Later on, information [was] released to media that boat was intercepted off Gujarati coast.”

Pakistan Navy said it had investigated the matter and the “orchestrated event speaks of malintent against Pakistan.”

Pakistan Navy and the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (PMSA) are fully capable of effectively preventing all sorts of illicit activities in Pakistani waters, it added.


Japan Moon lander put to sleep after surviving lunar night

Updated 02 March 2024
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Japan Moon lander put to sleep after surviving lunar night

  • The unmanned lander touched down in January at a wonky angle that left its solar panels facing the wrong way
  • As the sun’s angle shifted, it came back to life and carried out observations of a crater with a high-spec camera

TOKYO: Japan’s Moon lander has been put back to sleep after it surprisingly survived the freezing, two-week lunar night, the country’s space agency said, with another operation attempt scheduled for later this month.

The unmanned Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) touched down in January at a wonky angle that left its solar panels facing the wrong way.

As the sun’s angle shifted, it came back to life for two days and carried out scientific observations of a crater with a high-spec camera.

This week, the SLIM probe, which was “not designed for the harsh lunar nights,” when the temperature plunges to minus 133 degrees, produced another surprise by waking up after two weeks.

“SLIM has gone to sleep again as the sun set after 3 am (Japan Time) on March 1,” the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said on X, formerly Twitter, on Friday, alongside an image of the rocky lunar surface captured by the probe.

“Although the likelihood of failure will increase due to the severe temperature cycles, we will attempt SLIM operation again when the sunlight comes back in late March,” JAXA said.

The announcement comes after the uncrewed American lander Odysseus became the first private spaceship on the Moon.

The lander sent its final image on Thursday before its power banks depleted.

SLIM, dubbed the “Moon Sniper” for its precision landing technology, touched down within its target landing zone on January 20.

The feat was a win for Japan’s space program after a string of recent failures, making the nation only the fifth to achieve a “soft landing” on the Moon, after the United States, the Soviet Union, China and India.

The aim of the mission is to examine a part of the Moon’s mantle — the usually deep inner layer beneath its crust — that is believed to be accessible.

NASA is planning to return astronauts to the Moon later this decade.

The US, along with international partners, wants to eventually develop long-term habitats in the region, harvesting polar ice for drinking water — and for rocket fuel for eventual onward voyages to Mars.


Pakistan welcomes resumption of CASA-1000 power line in Afghanistan by World Bank

Updated 02 March 2024
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Pakistan welcomes resumption of CASA-1000 power line in Afghanistan by World Bank

  • The project aims to allow Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to sell excess energy to Pakistan and Afghanistan in summer months
  • Last month, the World Bank approved resumption of the project after it was stalled in 2022 due to turmoil in Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Friday welcomed resumption of activities in Afghanistan relating to a $1.2 billion Western-backed project to build a power line between Central Asia and South Asia, more than a year after it was stalled over turmoil in the neighboring country.

The CASA-1000 project aims to allow Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, former Soviet republics with an extensive network of hydroelectric power plants, to sell excess energy to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the summer months.

Last month, the World Bank, a key CASA-1000 backer, approved resumption of the clean energy project after it was stalled in 2022 due to turmoil in Afghanistan, with the Bank focusing on urgently needed education, agriculture and health programs.

It said construction of the project in the other three countries was nearly complete and these countries had requested that CASA-1000 activities in Afghanistan resume to avoid the risk of the project becoming a stranded asset.

“The Government of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan welcomes the recent announcement by the World Bank that, among other initiatives in support of the people of Afghanistan,” the Pakistani energy ministry said in a statement.

“The Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA-1000) in Afghanistan will be resumed as had been requested in December by all three neighboring countries participating in the project.”

The World Bank’s announcement of the project’s resumption was a “significant step forward” in the region’s commitment to energy collaboration, according to the statement.

The Pakistani energy ministry said Islamabad had signed a joint declaration along with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to thank the World Bank for its timely approval of the “ring-fenced” resumption of CASA-1000 construction in Afghanistan as well as to fully support the Bank in implementation of the parameters agreed with its board for the resumption of CASA-1000 construction activities in Afghanistan.

The project could be a boon for the two Central Asian nations which have excess power in the summer but suffer from shortages in the winter unless they can buy fuel or power from neighbors.

The United States was involved in financing the project when it was launched in 2016 as part of its New Silk Road initiative to integrate Afghanistan with Central Asia.

Other project sponsors have included the Islamic Development Bank, the UK Department for International Development, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.


Saudi Arabia gifts Pakistan 100 tons of dates ahead of Ramadan

Updated 02 March 2024
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Saudi Arabia gifts Pakistan 100 tons of dates ahead of Ramadan

  • Fasting during Ramadan is one of five pillars of Islam, wherein Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise till sunset
  • Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have strong brotherly relations and the Kingdom is home to over 2.7 million Pakistani expatriates

ISLAMABAD: Saudi Arabia has gifted Pakistan 100 tons of dates ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, the Saudi embassy said on Friday.

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, wherein Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise till sunset for a month. The Islamic lunar month will begin in March.

This is followed by the sighting of the new moon and is marked by Eid Al-Fitr, a religious holiday and celebration that is observed by Muslims across the world.

“In a gesture of goodwill, the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is delighted to offer 100 tons of dates to its esteemed brethren in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, following the recommendation of the esteemed leadership of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud,” the Saudi embassy said in a statement.

The consignment was handed over by Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador Nawaf bin Said Al-Maliki along with Abdullah Al-Baqami, director of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid & Relief Center (KSrelief) at a ceremony held at the Saudi embassy in Islamabad.

“This generous donation is intended for distribution among the Pakistani community during the holy month of Ramadan,” the statement read.

“This noble gesture exemplifies the enduring bond of friendship and brotherhood between the two nations, reflecting the spirit of generosity and solidarity cherished by both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.”

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoy strong trade, defense and brotherly relations. The Kingdom is home to over 2.7 million Pakistani expatriates, serving as the top destination for remittances for the cash-strapped South Asian country.