Shia pilgrims put a halt to Iraq-bound caravans
By Farhan Reza
KARACHI: Shia pilgrimage organisers have stopped sending their “caravans” to visit the western city of Karbala and other religious sites in Iraq for the past two months, and the last Pakistani pilgrim said the holy cities there had been deserted by February, according to various organizers.
“I was the last Pakistani who left Karbala on February 20,” said Salman Raza, who also one of the organizers of Al-Herman - a group which organizes caravans for Iraq, Iran and Syria. “Roads looked deserted in Karbala and Najaf [a city to the south of Karbala] and department stores were empty.”
Every year, Karbala and Najaf play host to thousands of Shia Muslims visiting the shrines of Imam Ali and Imam Hussain.
“The Iraqi government has allowed people to leave the country after paying $10,” Mr Raza said, adding that Iran had also stopped allowing people to go to Iraq in the middle of February and only receiving Iranians or Pakistanis who were already in Iraq for pilgrimage.
This year many caravans would not go to Iraq in the Islamic month of Safaar falling this year in April to observe the 40th day of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. “A large number of people go to Karbala for observing chehlum-e-Imam Hussain every year, and this year we have not been able to organise even a single caravan,” said Mohammad Taqi, who leads caravans from Kharader in Karachi.
Other caravan organizers also admit the fact. They said they were closely watching the situation. “We can get an Iraqi visa in three days. So carvans can still go as chehlum is held after 40 days,” said Mr Raza.
For the time being, there is no caravan scheduled for Iraq or Iran. “We are watching the situation,” said Hassan Naqi, an independent organizer, who takes caravans from the Ancholi society - a Shia dominated area in Karachi - to Iraq and Iran.
Caravan organizers were offering road services at up to Rs 20,000 to Rs 45,000, inclusive of travel expenses and accommodation, for Iraq, Iran and Syria while prices add up by Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000 for air travel. For Iran they charge each pilgrim up to Rs 6,000 to Rs 8,000.
Some organizers have announced June for visiting Iran. “We are planning to go to Iran in June,” said Mohammad Taqi, who organizes caravans at Kharader. “June is a boom month every year since people visit the holy places during school holidays.”