Lucrative business with pilgrimage visas
The attempt of the state for the cash-register system of the transactions of religious communities ended without success. As institutions, they are obliged at the end of each fiscal year to submit a report on the balance sheet and income statement. SCOOP came to the official document where there are no figures related to incomes and expenses of this institution. But if Macedonia sends 1200 pilgrims a year, then it turns out that the revenue from visas is 480,000 Euros per year. Provided to earn 400 Euros from each visa, as stated in the report of the State Department
A circular letter of the Islamic Religious Community in Macedonia (IRCM) covering the terms and price of pilgrimage for 2014, on 16th June arrived in the offices of muftiates across the country. Not so good news for the pilgrims who planned to visit Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, sacred places for Muslims. The arrangement for the pilgrimage this year has reached the figure of 3,200 Euros. If in 2003 it was 950 Euros, then it turns out that for 11 years arrangements became more expensive for 2,250 Euros.
“The Riyaset of IRC, based on Article 3 item 17 of the IRC Constitution, just like every year, this year is arranging a pilgrimage. The price of an arrangement of the pilgrimage by air is 3,200 Euros, and the price includes the following services: exit visa, administrative procedure for obtaining a pilgrimage visa, vaccination and healthcare, tickets…”, it is said among other things in the IRC circular letter.
The Law on Religious Communities and Religious Groups provides IRC to be the only religious community which can send people from Macedonia to pilgrimage, while the Ministry of Interior (MOI) should provide exit visas for its citizens traveling to Saudi Arabia, but only with prior approval by this religious community.
ARE PILGRIMAGE VISAS SOLD?
Charging the visas and the cooperation between the IRC and the Government have initiated a debate and controversies in public, accusing IRC of making lucrative business with the pilgrimage. The last report of the American State Department exposed the accuses of the alleged sale of visas and profiteering from close links of the IRC with the Government.
“Some people in the government and the Muslim community said IRC had also benefited from the close links with the government. As an example, they cited the provision of direct authority of IRC for connection with consular officials of Saudi Arabia for issuing pilgrimage visas. These people said that this Law allowed the IRC to take a fee worth around 400 Euros (551 dollars) to allow visa applications for participation in the pilgrimage, which is paid by Saudi Arabia”, said the report.
This information on the sale of visas was transferred by the local media and reached many pilgrims.
“If it is true, shame on them …” said pilgrim Bajram Zendeli from Tetovo, not wanting to comment more. He says he visited Mecca and Medina in 2010 and feels disappointed that money is taken unfairly for a visa that is free. The visa is still in his passport and writes “Pilgrimage visa, free”.
But the IRC secretary, Afrim Tahiri, rejects accusations of selling visas as untrue.
“It is true that there is criticism regarding visas. However, IRC does not take money for visas, but for services. IRC works all year long to organize the pilgrimage, and with greater intensity during Ramadan and the current period”, he points out.
Travel agents who sell arrangements say that everything depends on the IRC. If IRC decides not to take money for visas, then the price of the arrangement will be reduced for 400 Euros, and this reduction, according to them will increase the interest of the citizens in pilgrimage and the work of agencies.
But Tahiri from IRC says that the organization of the pilgrimage is hard and expensive.
“We organize the pilgrimage on the basis of the Law on religious communities, IRC Constitution and the agreement with the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Pilgrimage. All 25 pilgrims have one guide, for every 50 there is one doctor, for every 17 pilgrims we have a man who takes cares of them”, he says.
According to Tahiri, the information that IRC earns 2,000 Euros per each pilgrim is not true.
“We are transparent and say that IRC this year organizes the pilgrimage for 3,200 Euros. According to Islam, pilgrimage is not an obligation of every believer but only those who can afford it. Prices are similar to the countries in the region, but there are countries like Slovenia where it costs 3,850 Euros, or in Turkey where there is a pilgrimage for 2,700, 3,000 and VIP arrangements for 17,000 Euros”, he says.
Tahiri says that there was no appeal to IRC from a believer or anyone else related to the organization of pilgrimage. “In this sense there is no problem, just someone wants to create it artificially”, adds Tahiri.
On the other hand, the expert on religious issues in Macedonia, Ramadan Ramadani says IRC justifications for visas scandal are yet more scandalous.
“This is because they are trying to legalize this classic tax, which was confirmed by the highest level – international report on religious freedoms”, he said.
According to him, the explanations overlook the part where “someone in IRC sells visas to travel agencies” and it is about those few pilgrims who go through direct organization of IRC.
“But the number of those who go through travel agencies is always greater. That is why agencies are those who bear the cost of staff and additional costs”, said Ramadani.
The cost of the pilgrimage can be much lower if organized individually by each pilgrim. Given the distance, conditions and duration of stay in Mecca and Medina, it turns out that we can get cheaper arrangement through internet pages booking hotels and flights. Accommodation in 3 star hotels in Mecca for 21 days, the period of pilgrimage, is between 900-1,000 Euros per room. If we add the round-trip to Istanbul by bus of 60 Euros and return ticket Istanbul- Mecca of 500 Euros, it turns out that the trip and accommodation are 1,560 Euros.
The IRC does not want to reveal the profit from the procedure for obtaining a visa for pilgrimage. But approximate figure can be reached if you calculate the number of pilgrims or visas issued by the IRC. If Macedonia sends 1,200 pilgrims a year, then the benefit of visas turns out to be 480,000 Euros per year.
Secretary of the IRC, Afrim Tahiri says that IRC takes a certain amount just for services but not for visas. He is convinced that “everyone knows that the profits which remain from organizing the pilgrimage go for the needs of the students of the madrasa “Isa Beg”, for the needs of students who are studying in our educational institutions for free”.
According to him, the IRC provided vaccines donated by Turkey and granted to the Drugs Bureau. But, he says, “For the vaccine pilgrims pay 50 Euros, saying it is for service”.
“If health institutions charge 50 Euros for a service, then why cannot IRC profit from its services provided to pilgrims throughout the pilgrimage?” asks Tahiri adding that “the attempts of some people to make problems between IRC and those interested in going on a pilgrimage are futile”.
Ramadani admits that in the neighboring countries there are fees for services for getting visas, but unlike Macedonia, there is a much smaller fee and always recorded.
“No one in Macedonia issues a document for these 400 Euros for pilgrimage that someone from IRC takes. I think this scheme should be treated by state authorities because here we have a violation of property of the citizens of Macedonia and all subsequent issues that can arise from this, such as organized crime and tax avoidance”, says Ramadani.
What are the actual annual incomes and expenditure of the IRC? Religious communities in Macedonia enjoy a kind of financial autonomy when it comes to providing services with profit. Numerous financial scandals have shaken the religious institutions but none of them has been fully investigated. IRC and the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MOC) are public institutions but not taxpayers.
Ramadan Ramadani disagrees that religious institutions should be put to work as privileged by institutions, while citizens and companies pay tax on any transaction or activity.
“I think that religious communities should be subject to a treatment by the competent authorities. MOC and IRC are already mentioned in affairs with millions of Euros, about pilgrimage visas and the MOC hotels. One of the functions of government is to protect citizens from abuse of their property, even if done in the name of religion”, he says.
The attempt of the state for the cash-register system of the transactions of religious communities ended without success.
As institutions, under the Law on accounting of non-profit organizations, they are obliged at the end of each fiscal year to submit a report on the balance sheet and income statement. SCOOP came to the official document where there are no figures related to incomes and expenses of this institution.
“The subject has not submitted annual accounts or reporting because it had no business activities during 2013”, says the paper document from the Central Registry of Macedonia.
Meanwhile, SCOOP managed to provide several official documents of muftiates where the annual budget is planned and the balance is made. As seen from the document for 2012 of one of the muftiates, resources of income that are planned are: 300 thousand denars of religious fees, 45 thousand of administrative fees, 320 thousand from zakat, 150 thousand of kfars, 5.1 million denars from the issuance of commercial buildings of the muftiates, 135 thousand from the skin of qurbans, 16 thousand of religious literature, 1.2 million denars of interventions, 200 thousand of volunteer help, 850 thousand from the car park, 5.5 million denars of the sponsors of the construction of madrasa and 7.8 million denars from the positive balance of 2011. Projected incomes from the pilgrimage for that year, only for this muftiate were 512 thousand denars. But from the realization it is seen that of 101 pilgrims from this muftiate, income of 730 thousand denars was realized.
It turns out that in 2012 the documented profit of a pilgrim was about 7,300 denars, or 120 Euros. The same muftiate in 2013 earned nearly 847 thousand denars from pilgrims, or about 14 thousand Euros, which are documented.
While religious institutions require greater transparency, the state considers the forms of cash-register system of their activities. If they are introduced in the tax system of the country, it will certainly spoil the closeness with the government; it is highlighted in the State Department report.
For Ramadani this is the most important part of the story, “who allows in the name of the Macedonian government a robbery of thousands of pilgrims from Macedonia, repeated several years back”.