ISLAMABAD: The Ministry of Religious Affairs will officially raise the issue of restrictions imposed by the Iraqi government on Pakistani pilgrims seeking to visit Najaf and Karbala on dates of martyrdom and Chehlum of Imam Hussain.

It was decided after a meeting of Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noor-ul-Haq Qadri and prime minister’s spokesperson Nadeem Afzal Chan with the Iraqi ambassador here on Wednesday. The meeting was arranged to raise issues being faced by the Pakistani pilgrims in obtaining Iraqi visas to attend Chehlum, which is mere a few days ahead.

“Thousands of Pakistani Zaireen [pilgrims] are suffering due to the change of visa policy by Baghdad,” Mr Chan said while talking to Dawn, adding that there was no large-scale record of Pakistanis involved in political or any kind of lawbreaking activity in Iraq.

“This new restriction on Pakistanis was unjustified and our Ministry of Religious Affairs will soon write a letter to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Tourism of Iraq to lift it,” he said. Besides, he added, there had never been any adverse relations between the people of Pakistan and Iraq and, therefore, such fears by the Iraqi authorities were unjustified.

Last year around 150,000 Pakistanis proceeded to Iraq on the occasion of 10th Muharram and around the same number for Chehlum of Imam Hussain that falls on 20th Safar. However, around 50,000 visas have been issued this year due to new restrictions requiring security clearance from the Iraqi interior ministry.

During the meeting with Iraqi Ambassador Abdul Salam Sadam, the religious affairs minister and the PM’s spokesman expressed concern that a large number of Pakistanis were still waiting for issuance of Iraqi visas to attend Imam Hussain’s Chehlum there.

They also highlighted the disappointment and inconvenience faced by the pilgrims as many of them would not be able to perform Ziarat this year due to the inordinate delay in the issuance of Iraqi visas. The other issue highlighted was that the pilgrims had already booked air tickets and hotels in Najaf and Karbala for Chehlum.

Mr Qadri stressed the need for urgent streamlining of visa procedures and removal all hindrances in the way of processing visa applications. He assured the Iraqi envoy of the Pakistan government’s full support and cooperation in ensuring that all pilgrims return home after performing Ziarat.

The Iraqi ambassador has assured the government representatives of his embassy’s maximum support and cooperation in processing all visa requests well within time and in a transparent manner.

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2019