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LONDON: British pilgrims are struggling to keep up with a dramatic jump in the cost of traveling to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj.More than 20,000 people make the pilgrimage from the UK every year but spiralling air tickets and hotel prices have ramped up prices in the past five years.The plunge in the value of…

Radiation briefly spikes in Russian city after rocket engine explosion

LONDON: British pilgrims are struggling to keep up with a dramatic jump in the cost of traveling to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj.More than 20,000 people make the pilgrimage from the UK every year but spiralling air tickets and hotel prices have ramped up prices in the past five years.The plunge in the value of the pound over concerns about the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union has only added to the financial cost of visiting the Kingdom.This year pilgrims from the UK will pay somewhere between £5,000 and £11,000 to perform the pilgrimage, according to tour operators.The fifth pillar of Islam, Hajj must be performed by Muslims once in a lifetime as long as they can afford it and are healthy enough. But there are fears that some Muslims are being priced out of this duty.

Hajj packages in the UK vary according to hotel star ratings, how close hotels are to the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, whether flights are direct or not, and whether packages are “shifting” or “non-shifting”.With the considerably cheaper “shifting” packages, pilgrims are moved away from the Grand Mosque during the peak Hajj season, staying in faraway apartments. Once the main days of Hajj are over, pilgrims are moved to accommodation near the Grand Mosque.Mohammed Patel, 47, is a licensed Hajj operator and the owner of Flight Express travel agency in north London. He has been taking Brits on the pilgrimage annually since 1999.This year, his non-shifting executive Hajj package cost £7,200, based on four people sharing a room. The price includes 5-star hotel accommodation in Makkah and Madinah, return flights, the slaughter of an animal in accordance with Hajj requirements, transport within Saudi Arabia, half board meals throughout the journey, guidance on how to perform the Hajj, and accommodation in air-conditioned camps in Mina and Arafat.The same package in 2015 cost just £5,200 — almost 40 percent less.

Patel said the price increase can be attributed to many factors, including the high cost of flights that airlines know they are able to charge during the Hajj season, the increasing cost of hotel rooms, the decline of the British pound against the dollar over the last two years, and inflation in general.“We’re paying an average of between £1,100 — £1,400 per ticket which is maybe twice or three times the actual ticket value. Airlines know that there is a demand during this season,” Patel said.“During the period between 2003-2005, we used to sell packages for £1,500-£2,000 and buy tickets for £400. Buying a ticket for £600 was extortionate in those days, but now we’re looking at a minimum of £1,000. That could be with an airline that has a long stopover as well — you might have a stopover of five to seven hours.”The cost of staying in hotels in Makkah and Madinah during the Hajj period has also increased over the years due to demand and the introduction of two new taxes in the Kingdom at the beginning of 2018.Value Added Tax (VAT) is collected by the General Authority of Zakat and Tax (GAZT), and another 5 percent levy on each occupied hotel room that is rated over three stars is charged by the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs.“Hotel rates are going up on a yearly basis, and if we want to stay in them, we have no choice but to pay,” Patel said.

The British pound has fallen heavily against the dollar since the Brexit referendum in 2016, and sterling hit a 28-month low against the US dollar at the end of July as concerns grow that the UK will leave the European Union without a deal.Because the Saudi riyal is pegged to the US dollar, the pound is now worth fewer riyals and this is problematic for Hajj operators who pay large bills in sterling.“The exchange rate makes a difference. Whereas previously we’d exchange at SR5.5-SR6 for every pound, now £1 is worth SR4.5-4.7. The lower the rate is, the higher the cost will be for us,” Patel said.“When you’re paying bills worth hundreds of thousands or millions of riyals for overall services, the exchange rate makes a massive difference.”Despite the great expense involved, this does not put off more than 20,000 British pilgrims performing Hajj every year.Shaheen Doctor said she had wanted for a long time to perform Hajj when she finally made the pilgrimage from Britain last year.While the journey with her husband and two children surpassed her spiritual expectations, the trip cost about £24,000.“We don’t regret it and believe that God will recompense us for this amount,” the 43-year-old nurse from Hackney, London, told Arab News. “This year, however, we won’t be going abroad during July and August.”Yusuf Bham, a 51-year-old civil servant from Nuneaton, is performing Hajj this year and is looking forward to the “once in a lifetime event.”He said that although he has had to save to be able to perform Hajj, he “enjoyed making those sacrifices” because they are worth it.

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The British Hajj tour operator ‘serving pilgrims for 20 years’

Mohammed Patel in Arafat during a previous Hajj. (Photo: Supplied)

Mohammed Patel, 47, runs Flight Express, a travel agency in Finsbury Park, north London, and has been leading Hajj groups of British pilgrims to Saudi Arabia since 1999.

He told Arab News that although he and his team face different challenges every year, Saudi authorities are continuously making efforts to improve the Hajj experience for more than 2 million Muslims who arrive in the Kingdom for the annual pilgrimage.

“Generally, I can say hand on heart, they do a magnificent job in Saudi Arabia considering that more than 2 million people are attending Hajj in a small area. They have a good set-up.”

Patel says that despite the “very hard work, stress and six to seven months of planning prior to Hajj” that is involved in order to make his clients’ pilgrimage as smooth as possible, he continues to lead Hajj groups every year.

“Every year we have new experiences and learn something new. We strive to improve every year because we want to better our clients’ Hajj experience for the next year.

“My motivation is to serve pilgrims. I thank God for giving me the licence to operate as a Hajj operator, and the good reviews that I get every year encourages me to serve the pilgrims.”

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Kosovo declares Nobel laureate Handke ‘persona non grata’

Harvey Weinstein and the board of his bankrupt film studio have reached a tentative $25 million settlement with dozens of women who accused the former Hollywood producer of sexual misconduct, The New York Times said on Wednesday, citing lawyers involved in the negotiations.The accord would end nearly all civil lawsuits by actresses and former Weinstein…

Kosovo declares Nobel laureate Handke ‘persona non grata’

Harvey Weinstein and the board of his bankrupt film studio have reached a tentative $25 million settlement with dozens of women who accused the former Hollywood producer of sexual misconduct, The New York Times said on Wednesday, citing lawyers involved in the negotiations.The accord would end nearly all civil lawsuits by actresses and former Weinstein employees who accused him of offenses ranging from sexual harassment to rape, the newspaper said. Weinstein would not be required under the settlement to admit wrongdoing or to pay anything, and insurers for the former Weinstein Co. studio would fund the payout, the newspaper said.Weinstein has been accused of sexual misconduct dating back decades by more than 70 women. He has denied the allegations, saying any sexual encounters were consensual.Accusers involved in the tentative accord would make their claims in bankruptcy court, and the $25 million payout would be part of a $47 million settlement to close out the studio’s obligations, the newspaper said, citing six lawyers.Weinstein’s representatives could not immediately be reached for comment; they had declined to comment to the Times.The litigation is separate from criminal charges that Weinstein faces in New York, where prosecutors have accused him of sexually assaulting two women, one in 2006 and another in 2013.A trial is scheduled for Jan. 6, 2020, and Weinstein could face life in prison if convicted on the top counts.

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Harvey Weinstein reaches tentative $25 mln settlement with accusers -NY Times

PRISTINA: Kosovo declared Peter Handke a ‘persona non grata’ on Wednesday in the latest protest against his induction as a Nobel literature laureate, barring the Austrian writer from a place he has visited numerous times.The Swedish Academy’s pick for the 2019 prize has reopened old wounds in the Balkans, where many see Handke as an…

Harvey Weinstein reaches tentative $25 mln settlement with accusers -NY Times

PRISTINA: Kosovo declared Peter Handke a ‘persona non grata’ on Wednesday in the latest protest against his induction as a Nobel literature laureate, barring the Austrian writer from a place he has visited numerous times.The Swedish Academy’s pick for the 2019 prize has reopened old wounds in the Balkans, where many see Handke as an apologist for Serb atrocities during Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse.One Nobel committee member resigned over the choice, while Tuesday’s award ceremony was boycotted by representatives of the embassies of Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Turkey.“Today I have decided to declare Peter Handke as not welcome in Kosovo. He is a non-grata person… Denying crimes and supporting criminals is a terrible crime,” Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli wrote on Facebook.The writer is not popular among Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian-majority, who fought Belgrade for independence in a 1998-99 war that claimed 13,000 lives.But he was a frequent guest in the tiny Serb enclave of Velika Hoca, one of several small ethnic Serb communities scattered around the former Serbian province.Handke has visited Velika Hoca at least five times and donated nearly €100,000 ($110,000) to the community of 500 people, whose village is nestled among the rolling hills of southern Kosovo.“Even if there are big problems, I think life has a good rhythm here,” the writer said during a 2014 visit.“I can be alone here. I can hide. I can walk very hidden behind the hills,” he added.Handke’s elevation to Nobel laureate has also been painful for many Bosnian Muslims, as he is accused of questioning the genocide in Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serbs slaughtered 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995.On Wednesday he was formally barred from Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo, where the regional government said his appearance would “provoke the anger and humiliation” of war victims.Yet he is still welcome to visit the Serb-run zone that spans nearly half of Bosnia’s territory — a legacy of the war that left the country carved up along ethnic lines.On Tuesday Handke told RTRS, the public broadcaster in Bosnia’s Serb-run region that he would like to visit “in the spring.”Handke has defended his work and denied any allegiance to the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.Critics say Handke made his loyalties clear by speaking at the funeral of Milosevic, who died in 2006 while on trial in The Hague for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.Handke’s 1997 book “A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia” was also accused of minimizing Serb war crimes.But among Serb fans, Handke is still celebrated for taking note of their suffering during the conflicts and challenging the narrative that Serbs were the sole aggressors in the wars.In Belgrade, one politician suggested creating a human rights prize in Handke’s name on Wednesday.Handke was one of “very few who searched for the truth during the 1990s,” said MP Mirjana Dragas, describing the author as a “brave, but above all great, novelist.”

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Indians demonstrate against ‘divisive’ citizenship bill

NEW DELHI: Protests erupted across various parts of India on Tuesday, a day after the lower house of Parliament passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) which makes religion the basis for granting Indian citizenship to minorities from neighboring countries.  The bill, which goes to the upper house on Wednesday, would ensure citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs,…

Indians demonstrate against ‘divisive’ citizenship bill

NEW DELHI: Protests erupted across various parts of India on Tuesday, a day after the lower house of Parliament passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) which makes religion the basis for granting Indian citizenship to minorities from neighboring countries. 

The bill, which goes to the upper house on Wednesday, would ensure citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis and Buddhists from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but exclude Muslims.

“After the CAB, we are going to bring in the National Register of Citizens (NRC),” Home Minister Amit Shah said after the passage of the bill. 

The fear among a large section of Indians is that by bringing in the CAB and the NRC — a process to identify illegal immigrants — the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to target Muslim minorities. 

They insist that the new bill protects all other communities except Muslims, who constitute around 14 percent of India’s total population.

The opposition Congress Party said that the bill was a move to “destroy the foundation” of India.

“The CAB is an attack on the Indian constitution. Anyone who supports it is attacking and attempting to destroy the foundation of our nation,” party leader Rahul Gandhi posted in a tweet.

Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul’s sister and a prominent opposition leader, called the bill “India’s tryst with bigotry.”

However, BJP spokesperson Sudesh Verma said: “The opposition is communalizing the bill. 

The CAB saves minorities who owe their origin to India from being prosecuted on grounds of religious status. The same is not the case with Muslims since they have not been prosecuted because of their religion.”

Eight northeastern states observed a day-long strike against the CAB. 

“Once the bill is implemented, the native tribal people will become permanent minorities in their own state,” Animesh Debbarma, a tribal leader who organized the strike in the state of Tripura said.

“The bill is against our fundamental rights and it is an attack on our constitution and secularism,” he told Arab News.

In Assam, some places saw violence with a vehicle belonging to the BJP state president vandalized.

In New Delhi, different civil society groups and individuals gathered close to the Indian Parliament and expressed their outrage at the “open and blatant attack” on what they called the “idea” of India.

“The CAB is not only against Muslim minorities but against all the minorities — be it Tamils or Nepali Gurkhas — and is a blatant attempt to polarize the society in the name of religion and turn India into a majoritarian Hindu state,” Nadeem Khan, head of United Against Hate, a campaign to connect people from different faiths, said.

Rallies and protests were also organized in Pune, Ahmadabad, Allahabad, Patna and Lucknow.

On Tuesday, more than 600 academics, activists, lawyers and writers called the bill “divisive, discriminatory, unconstitutional” in an open letter, and urged the government to withdraw the proposed law.

They said that the CAB, along with the NRC, “will bring untold suffering to people across the country. It will damage fundamentally and irreparably, the nature of the Indian republic.”

Delhi-based activist and a prominent human rights campaigner, Harsh Mander, said: “I feel the CAB is the most dangerous bill that has ever been brought by the Indian Parliament. We need a mass civil disobedience movement to oppose this legislation.”

Meanwhile, the international community is also watching the domestic debate on the CAB. 

Describing the initiative as a “dangerous turn in the wrong direction,”  a federal US commission on international religious freedom has sought US sanctions against Shah and other Indian leaders if the bill with the “religious criterion” is passed.

EU ambassador to India, Ugo Astuto, in a press conference in New Delhi on Monday said that he hopes: “The spirit of equality enshrined in the Indian constitution will be upheld by the Parliament.”

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