By Ali G. Macabalang
MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte has named for the fourth time lawyer Saidamen Pangarungan as head of the Philippine Pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca), even as officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have announced having resumed regular hajj activities on a regulation fashion in deference to the continuing global COVID-19 pandemic.
The latest designation followed a pompous Palace citation of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) under Pangarungan stewardship for receiving last month an ISO certification making it one of few Philippine agencies credited for exemplary operations passing “international standards” among 165 nations across the globe.
The President had first named Pangarungan as Philippine ‘amirul hajj’ after shortly appointing him NCMF secretary in 2018, reportedly tasking him to institute reforms in the Commission as well as its administration of annual pilgrimage. Hajj is mandated as one of the five pillars of Islam for every qualified Muslim to perform at least once in lifetime.
Pangarungan’s first designation, however, could not institute reforms in the 2018 hajj because the NCMF, notably his predecessor, had already completed arrangements for flights and hotel bookings for pilgrims before his appointment.
He led and supervised the Filipino pilgrims that year, with ceremonial efforts meant to ensure cohesive movements in accordance with the prearranged activities in the Holy Lands, said NCMF spokesman Jun Alonto-Datu Ramos.
Kickbacks in millions allegedly pervaded past schemes in pilgrims’ round-trip flight fares, hotel billeting and transport services in Saudi Arabia. Alleged favoritism had also resulted in bumping off dozens if not hundreds of pilgrims, each paying more than P200,000 hajj fares and service fees, Pangarungan once said, citing feedback.
President Duterte designated Pangarungan “amirul hajj’ again in 2019, enabling him this time to carry his mission by billeting Filipino pilgrims in four and five-star hotels near the Makkah and Madina Holy grounds, and bargaining with the Saudi government to allow other airlines to serve Philippine delegates.
Datu Ramos said the innovations made a difference in Filipino pilgrims’ quest for comfort in hajj and in saving as much as P30,000 each in expenses, an unprecedented feat that drew official citations also from Malacañang.
President Duterte named Pangarungan “amirul hajj” again for the 2020 and 2021 pilgrimages, but the designations were not exercised because the Saudi government canceled the entries of foreign pilgrims in those years as a result of the restrained social movements in the global COVID-019 pandemic, he said.
In 2019, Datu Ramos said, the NCMF had mustered more than 7,200 Filipino pilgrims, reflecting a sharp increase in the average 5,000 hajj goers from the country in past years.
With the Saudi government’s renewed hosting of the annual hajj for foreign pilgrims, Datu Ramos said, the NCMF is anticipating from 8,000 to 10,000 Filipinos delegates, attributing the projected increase to the past years of lull in hajj.
He said another factor is the possibility of politicians, after winning seats in the May 9, 2022 elections, to perform hajj and/or sponsor the pilgrimage of supporters.
The designation of annual “amirul hajj” had once shaped intense lobbying among mostly Muslim political or traditional leaders before the NCMF was established under Republic Act 9997 in 2010, notably under the defunct Office on Muslim Affairs (OMA) and the Philippine Pilgrimage Authority (PhilPA).
The NCMF charter stipulates the designation of its secretary as “amirul hajj” yearly, although late former President Noynoy Aquino had designated one or two from the outsider when the Commission was facing a leadership crisis, it was learned. (AGM)