Launch of the British Hajj Delegation 2007
By Dr. Mozammel Haque
28 November 2006
The eighth British Hajj Delegation (BHD) 2007 was officially launched on Tuesday, 28th of November 2006 at the Islamic Cultural Centre, London, in the presence of British Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland, Prince Mohammad bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, Lord Adam Patel of Blackburn, Dr. Ahmed al-Dubayan, Director General of the Islamic Cultural Centre (ICC), London, Ambassadors of Algeria and Qatar and other diplomats and Prince Muhsin Ali Khan and representatives of many Muslim organizations and members of other faith communities.
I had the opportunity to interview the Foreign Secretary. In reply to my question, she said, "I think that is very helpful that the Saudi Government itself provides such good facilities to support pilgrims on the Hajj. And, of course, they help and contribute to the work of the British Hajj Delegation. Just to say, they contribute to this Islamic Cultural Centre, a wonderful centre, which has been providing services to the British citizens in this country for something like forty years." She also added, "We very much appreciate the help and cooperation of the Saudi authorities."
While welcoming to the launch of the British Hajj Delegation 2007 and saying Assalamu Alaikum to all present, the Foreign Secretary said, "This will be the eighth British Hajj delegation. Its purpose is to help British Muslims whilst they perform the annual pilgrimage." She also mentioned, "The UK is the only non-Muslim country to give this level of assistance to its citizens in Makkah during the Hajj."
Speaking about the support the British government extended to its citizens regardless of their creed or colour, Beckett said, "From lost passports to road accidents, from muggings to natural disasters, we have staff all over the world ready to provide high-quality, professional consular support, which we continue daily and monthly to upgrade. We should be clear about one thing, this Hajj delegation is another example of that work. We are not singling out any particular religion for special or preferential treatment. We provide this service to Hajj pilgrims not because they are Muslim - but because they are British."
Speaking about the positive impact of the expression of faith that is embodied in the Hajj, the Foreign Secretary said, "I have learnt from these colleagues that core Islamic values include mutual respect, justice and peace. These are the beliefs that the vast majority of Muslims hold close and by which they try to live their lives. And they mirror the principles which all British people hold in common."
Supporting the aspiration of the intending Hajjis, Beckett said, "As one of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is something I know that all Muslims seek to do at least once during their life. This delegation supports that aspiration."
"It can be an extremely challenging journey. Although in the 21st century examples of devoted Muslims trekking on foot across Africa or the breadth of southern Asia to reach Mecca are rare, still walking for miles in the heat and facing huge crowds shows the commitment that the pilgrims have to their faith," said the Foreign Secretary and added, "Such huge physical demands ensures that our delegation are kept busy seeing to the needs of a steady stream of British pilgrims suffering from fatigue, dehydration or illness."
Speaking about the composition of this year BHD, Beckett said, "This delegation itself is a very vivid example of how faith can be an inspirational force for good. The 8 doctors who make up the delegation this year, include 2 women, are all volunteers. They will be leaving behind their jobs and families for several weeks to help their fellow Muslims. This act of helping others during their pilgrimage demonstrates generosity of spirit and true commitment to the wider community."
Speaking about the two million British Muslims, British Foreign Secretary said, they "make an immense contribution every day to our shared society - whether in business, politics or the media. The achievements of Britain's Muslims are achievements for Britain and when they travel abroad for tourism, business or, indeed, for the pilgrimage they are ambassadors for us all."
While offering her condolences to the families of the victims and hoping that we will not have to assist in such sad circumstances this year, Beckett said, "Last year, as you have heard, tragically over 300 people - including 3 British pilgrims - were killed in a crush of pilgrims."
Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Prince Mohammad bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, expressed his "pleasure to see so many Muslims from all walks of life eagerly preparing to travel to my country to perform this religious duty that is so dear to their hearts."
Prince Mohammad also said, "Hajj is a true reflection of the principals of Islam where no man or woman is better than another and all Muslims are equal in the eyes of God."
"This principle of equality is of the highest significance as it demonstrates the essence of Islam, Islam of moderation, Islam of conciliation and Islam of good relations with others. It reflects the true meaning of the Hajj which the Prophet Muhammad himself, Peace be upon him, manifested clearly when he performed this meaningful set of rituals," said Prince Mohammad.
The Saudi Ambassador said, "Hajj is an occasion where Muslims from all nations are given a golden opportunity to know each other better and learn more about each other's issues and concerns and practice Islam's teachings of compassion, tolerance, care and cooperation with others." He also added, "Hajj is the most impressive manifestation of Islam's cross-borders and cross-cultural nature."
While speaking about the improvement of the Two Holy Mosques, the Saudi Ambassador said, "Last year, a significant extension was made to the Jamarat Bridge at a cost of $1.12 billion to make Hajj safer for pilgrims. In June of this year, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz announced plans to further expand the Prophet's mosque in Madinah so that it can accommodate a further 270,000 worshippers.
He also added, "This is all in addition to the $8 billion committed under the 10-year plan announced in 2003 to carry out 60 projects in relation to Makkah and Madinah, including the development of new hotels and apartments to accommodate the ever growing number of pilgrims. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia happily undertakes these commitments and the only reward it looks for is the assurance that pilgrims are able to perform Hajj properly and that they return home to their families' safe, happy and fulfilled."
Speaking about the British Hujjaj, Prince Mohammad said, "Out of approximately 2 million Muslims in the United Kingdom, 25,000 performed Hajj last year. A similar or even greater number is expected this year. In addition, over 37,000 British Muslims traveled to Saudi Arabia last year to perform Umrah and the same or even greater number is expected throughout next year."
Prince Mohammad gave assurance that Saudi Arabia "will do everything it can to ensure that the British Hajj Delegation's visit to Saudi Arabia is a safe and successful one."
Speaking about Saudi Arabia's policy, Prince Mohammad mentioned "its longstanding policy of moderation and tolerance in both its foreign relations and in its efforts to promote Islam. These principles have been followed by the Kingdom since its unification a century ago and we encourage other nations to practice the same."
Prince Mohammad said, "Equally, the British Government's support of moderation and tolerance are greatly appreciated by all Muslims and certainly by Saudi Arabia. Nowhere is this attention more evident than in the support it provides to the Muslim community in general and to the British Hajj Delegation in particular."
Acknowledging and appreciating the efforts of both the British Government and Muslim organizations in the United Kingdom, such as the Hajj Advisory Group, the Saudi Ambassador said, "Representative of this Group reflects the diversity of the Muslim community across the United Kingdom. They have put tremendous efforts in arranging pre-Hajj awareness sessions for members of the Hajj delegation as well as serving as a focal point for addressing the consular and medical concerns of British Muslims undertaking the Hajj. "
Earlier, Lord Adam Patel expressed his pleasure "to say that no other Muslim country provides such a service to their citizens."
After praising the commitment and dedication of the volunteers and doctors of the BHD and the officials both from the foreign office and the consular office, Lord Patel said, "I am personally obliged that these people worked so hard. On some other occasion, they have had over 800 people per day and yet the volunteers and the doctors rose to the occasion. Last year unfortunately three citizens died. The work of the consular office was non stop. They worked on a 24-hour cycle to ensure no further pilgrim went to the scene of the accident and we also provide support to the families of the deceased."
Speaking about the proactive measure which saves National Health Service (NHS) million of pounds, Lord Patel mentioned many proactive measures "help in early identification and reduction of infectious disease back in the UK. This saves whole families and neighbours becoming ill. This measure saves NHS and employers over a million pounds a year in the long run. This makes the British Hajj Delegation one of the most cost-effective government supported initiative and we hope this initiative will continue and expand."
"Since we have started, the British Hajj Delegation have directly supported over 50,000 pilgrims for the last seven years. Last year, over 7,000 cases, the highest number; however, it was a great credit to the Delegation, officials and the Saudi Ministry of Hajj that we managed to prevent the increase," said Lord Patel.
Speaking about the composition of the BHD, Lord Patel said, "This year British Hajj Delegation comprise of eight doctors, three consular officers and myself. However, I cannot forget the officials from the Saudi government and the British embassy in Saudi Arabia who have gone beyond the call in supporting the delegation for the last eight years."
Finally Lord Patel expressed "his thanks to the Saudi Government and the Ministry of Hajj and the members of the Hajj Advisory Group and Dr. Ahmed al-Dubayan, of course, officials of the Saudi Embassy for the vital role to support the Hajj Delegation."
Replying to my query about the religious training of the Hujjaj, Dr. al-Dubayan, who spoke earlier about the activities of the ICC, said, "Islamic Cultural Centre does that. Every year we have at least two or three events for Hujjaj to make awareness of Hajj with some travel agency. Secondly; we distribute books on religious performances and how to perform Hajj. Muslims carry all of these books."
Dr. al-Dubayan also said that "Foreign Office and Hajj Advisory Group are not responsible for the religious training. They are responsible for medical and administrative care. This is what they actually are doing."
Speaking about visa-fee, Dr. Al-Dubayan said, "Saudi Embassy does not charge any fee for Hajj visa. People complained and when we investigated, we found it was due to the bad performance done by some of the travel agencies."