Members of the Muslim community in Trinidad and Tobago are calling on the government to ease the current restrictions on the allocation of foreign exchange to enable their members to make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Imam Rasheed Karim, the chairman of Ummah T&T Muslim Federation, the largest lobby group seeking the interest of local Muslims, said that the current regulations are making it very difficult for hundreds of potential pilgrims to make the once-in-a-lifetime journey.
He said a substantial part of the travel package for the Hajj, lasting from two weeks to a month, must be paid in US dollars and the agents authorized by the Saudi Government have set a deadline by which the payments must be made to confirm hotel, and airline bookings.
"We find it very unnecessary and unacceptable that Muslims must undergo the anxiety and uncertainty when Hajj time comes around because there is this perennial problem where we cannot get the required foreign exchange to make successful arrangements," said Imam Karim.
He stated that performing the Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and all Muslims who are healthy and have the resources to do so, must fulfil this obligation which most Muslims perform at least once in their lifetime.
Imam Karim said Muslims usually put aside savings during their entire working life in order to make the Hajj in retirement and should not have to struggle against government bureaucracy to practise their faith to the best of their ability in the twilight of their years.
"The whole process of Hajj is tightly regulated by the Saudi Government and there are no loopholes for money-laundering or any other illegal activity concerning the financial arrangements. So we are calling on the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance to intervene and allow Muslims the necessary clearance to get the foreign exchange to pay for the Hajj," said Imam Karim.
He said the majority of people who make Hajj are senior citizens, many old and infirm, whose lifelong dream is to fulfill the final pillar of their Islamic faith and a caring, just and equitable government is required to show some goodwill by relaxing the forex regulations.
Imam Karim said this matter has been raised before, notably at a meeting of Muslim religious leaders called by the Prime Minister at the Diplomatic Centre in St Ann's last year in the aftermath of the state's round-up and detention of more than a dozen Muslims on charges which were later dropped because of a lack of evidence.
Ummah T&T Muslim Federation had presented the PM with a list of measures that the government should take to foster a better understanding of, and establish lines of communication with the fastest growing religious community in T&T.
The group also played a leading role in helping to draft the amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Bill which ensured that the fundamental rights and freedoms of Muslims were not infringed by arbitrary and draconian law.
Ummah T&T Muslim Federation has also been lobbying for a bigger role for the imams of the scores of independent mosques who work mainly in socially depressed communities and must be supported to be effective instruments of change and assist in reducing crime and other ills in society.