SOCIAL Media is abuzz with criticism of a column in the Haj application form that seeks the identity of Shia Muslims. Many people insist that asking an applicant to reveal his or her sect in the Haj application form is religious or sectarian discrimination. While the Saudi government has reportedly denied that it had asked for this identity verification, the government of Pakistan says this column has existed in the form for the past 20 years.
Here are excerpts of an interview with Minister for Religious Affairs Sardar Mohammad Yousuf on the issue:
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Q: Why has the ministry of religious affairs introduced a separate column for the Shias in the Haj application form?
A: It hasn’t been introduced now. It has been there for 20 years, but it has apparently just been noticed by most people.
Q: Why are Shias required to reveal their sect in the Haj application form?
A: This is needed to meet some requirements of the Shia sect for Haj.
Q: What are these requirements?
A: Shias want some separate arrangements for them. They demand, for instance, roofless buses to travel after wearing ahrams. They also demand separate maktabs and residential buildings. They want to return home soon after Haj because of the approaching month of Muharram. They want to perform more umrahs than other pilgrims and also for their relatives. They want to travel at night only and they go to Jofa, a place 180 kilometres from Makkah, to wear ahrams unlike other pilgrims, who wear ahrams before flying to Jeddah from Pakistan. Shia women may perform Haj without a mehram while women from other sects can perform Haj only accompanied by a mehram. And they also organise majalis in their maktabs. So it’s important to ask the pilgrims if they are Shia to make all these arrangements possible for them.
Q: Does the Pakistan government also provide them separate clerics for their prayers and majalis?
A: No, they arrange it themselves.
Q: Are Shia leaders on board with the ministry on this issue?
A: Yes. All these arrangements are made on their own request. They are asking even for a separate quota of pilgrims for the Shia community, which we can’t provide because we can’t allocate a separate quota for the followers of every sect.
Q: Are Shias satisfied with the arrangements the ministry of religious affairs makes for them?
A: Yes, they are satisfied.
Q: Don’t you think this question about the Shia sect has fuelled religious disharmony among different sects in Pakistan?
A: No, because this is being asked to serve them better. There is no question of religious disharmony.
Q: What steps have you taken to dispel the impression that the government has created disharmony among various sects by asking such questions?
A: We are issuing statements to clarify the situation. We have also sent a detailed statement to parliament to clarify the issue. We will also release facts to the press to negate the wrong impression. There is certainly no controversy about it.
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