| Ahmad Pathoni |
Jakarta (dpa) — As a devout Muslim, Haji Aming considered the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca his lifetime goal.
He finally made the pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest city in 2012, after parting with most of his worldly possessions.
“I sold my plot of land because that was the only way I could have made it to Mecca,” said the 60-year-old produce vendor in Depok town, near Jakarta.
More than 2.4 million Indonesians have started paying for trips to Mecca under a government-managed Haj deposit scheme, while the annual quota in Mecca for the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country is about 200,000.
That means every would-be pilgrim has to wait an average of 12 years, and the waiting list is rapidly lengthening.
But some officials, legislators and their relatives can jump the queue and fly to the holy city, sometimes at no cost at all, according to anti-corruption activists.
“The abuse of the quota has been a longstanding problem,” said Firdaus Ilyas, the head of monitoring at Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), a non-governmental organisation.
“The entire Haj management is prone to shenanigans,” he said.
With each prospective pilgrim required to deposit about 2,500 dollars to be on the waiting list, ICW estimates that the Haj money in Indonesian banks totalled 914 million dollars in 2013.
“The money is not transparently managed and it’s not clear how interest rates are calculated.”
The Religious Affairs Ministry, which organizes the entire Haj programme including air transport, food and accommodation, has been under increased scrutiny recently since becoming embroiled in a corruption case.
In May, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali resigned after being named a suspect in a case that, according to the Corruption Eradication Commission, revolves around the use of aspiring pilgrims’ deposit money to pay for Haj expenses for officials and their families.
Suryadharma, who until earlier this month was chairman of the country’s oldest Islamic political party, has denied any wrongdoing, saying it was a case of misunderstanding.
The powerful anti-graft commission has also imposed a travel ban on six members of the House of Representatives in connection with the case.
Suryadharma was not the first official from the ministry involved in a corruption case involving Haj funds.
In 2006, former religious affairs minister Said Aqil Munawwar was sentenced to five years in prison for misusing proceeds from the Haj deposits.
Firdaus said an ICW investigation revealed that suspected corruption in Haj management also involves manipulating currency and interest rates as well as marking up hotel, transport and food expenses.
These resulted in total losses of 4.6 trillion rupiah (384 million dollars) to pilgrims between 2006 and 2013.
“Even expenses that should be borne by the government under the law are often passed on to would-be pilgrims,” he said.
These include expenses for officials serving as Haj organisers and monitors.
Despite the high costs, there have been persistent complaints about shoddy accommodation, transport and catering services in Saudi Arabia, Firdaus said.
President-elect Joko Widodo spoke of a “Haj mafia” during campaigning for the July 9 election and vowed to eradicate it.
Suryadharma’s succesor, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, has promised to clean up the Religious Affairs Ministry, long seen as one of the country’s most corrupt institutions, and improve the Haj organisation.
Lukman said the ministry managed to save 141 billion rupiah this year by renegotiating accommodation expenses with Saudi hotel owners.
He said catering services were also being improved, with food regularly checked for quality and nutritional content.
Lukman said he wanted to fight corruption at his ministry because the public expects it to be better than other government institutions.
“There are two thieves: One from the Religious Affairs Ministry and the other from another ministry, but the thief from the Religious Affairs Ministry gets more attention even though they steal the same
things,” he said.
Despite relentless criticism about the way the Haj is managed, aspiring pilgrims are undeterred.
“The Haj is an obligation which must be fulfilled if we are able,” said Ahmad Sobari, a 52-year-old grocery shop owner whose turn to go to Mecca is scheduled for next year.
“God answers all prayers when we are in the holy city,” he said.