Sri Lanka has given the same quota of pilgrims for Haj as last year because of ongoing development work in the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, Arab News reported.
Minister for Urban Affairs A.H.M Fowzie signed the annual Haj agreement with the Kingdom on Sunday, allowing Colombo to send 2,800 pilgrims.
Speaking to Arab News following the signing ceremony, Fowzie, who held talks with Haj Minister Bandar Hajjar, said that the island has more than 3 million Muslims and his ministry has so far received more than 7,000 applicants for the forthcoming Haj.
He pointed out that Hajjar explained the difficulties faced by the Saudi authorities in accommodating a larger number of pilgrims because of the ongoing construction work at the holy sites.
The visiting minister said that he was told that the expansion work is under way to allow for 150,000 pilgrims to circumambulate the Kaaba at a time. “Currently 50,000 worshippers can circumambulate the Kaaba at a time,” he said.
Since the Sri Lankan government has been given a relatively small quota for Haj, pilgrims would be allowed to do Haj on a “first-come, first-served basis,” the minister said.
He said Colombo would like to see an increase in its quota of pilgrims in the coming years since Muslims on the island are now free to travel in and out of the country following the end of a long-running ethnic conflict.
“We have successfully eliminated the threat from the shores of Sri Lanka under the able leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa,” Fowzie said.
He thanked Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah and his government for the services extended to the pilgrims every year.
“Muslims are well looked after by the Rajapaksa government. There are no restrictions imposed on the number of Haj pilgrims who wish to perform their religious duties,” the visiting minister explained. “We allow everyone who wishes to perform his lifetime obligation to Allah,” he said.
The minister said the Haj procedures are streamlined through a network of operators based in all parts of the island. “We have a separate department to handle Haj operations and the Saudi Embassy in Colombo cooperates with the government issuing Haj visas to pilgrims promptly.”
“Every year, the Lankan government blacklists operators who fail to comply with the Haj department requirements during the previous pilgrimage.”
Answering a question about the anti-Muslim campaign that has caused alarm among members of the Muslim community in the island, the minister said that through the conscious efforts of some Muslim politicians, the conflict has greatly simmered down.
The country’s president has categorically declared before all Muslim foreign ambassadors that he would not allow minority interests to be threatened by any group with vested interests.
In March, the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation expressed its concerns over the escalating ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka affecting the Muslim community and its businesses in the island.
Regarding the arrest of Muslim activist and former Deputy Mayor of Colombo Azath Salley, the minister said he had been arrested on complaints received by the criminal investigations department, Arab News reported.