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Pilgrims scale Mount Arafat in high point of biggest Covid-era Haj

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Huge crowds of pilgrims started praying on Saudi Arabia’s Mount Arafat early on Friday, the high point of the biggest Haj pilgrimage since the pandemic forced drastic cuts in numbers for two years in a row.

The worshippers, capped at one million including 850,000 from abroad chosen by lottery, spent the night at camps in the valley of Mina, seven kilometres from Makkah’s Grand Mosque.

In the early hours of Friday, they converged on Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) delivered his final sermon, for the most important of the Haj rituals.

They will stay all day at the site, praying and reciting the Quran.

Pilgrims gather on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj, outside the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. — Reuters
Pilgrims gather on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj, outside the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. — Reuters

After sunset, they will head to Muzdalifah, halfway between Arafat and Mina, where they will sleep under the stars before performing the symbolic “stoning of the devil” ceremony on Saturday.

This year’s Haj is taking place against the backdrop of a resurgence of Covid-19 in the region, with some Gulf countries tightening restrictions to keep outbreaks in check.

All participants were required to submit proof of full vaccination and negative PCR tests. Upon reaching Mina on Thursday, they were handed small bags containing masks and sanitisers.

Pilgrims walk under sprinklers as they make their way for prayers outside the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's Makkah. — AFP
Pilgrims walk under sprinklers as they make their way for prayers outside the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s Makkah. — AFP

The Haj, usually one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings, is among the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.

In 2019, some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world took part, as in previous years.

But the coronavirus outbreak has since forced Saudi authorities to dramatically downsize the Haj. Just 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom participated in 2021, up from a few thousand in 2020.

Sun and tears

The pilgrimage can be physically draining even in ideal conditions, but worshippers this year have faced an added challenge: scorching sun and temperatures rising to 42 degrees Celsius.

Islam forbids men from wearing hats once the rites start, and many have been seen shielding themselves with umbrellas, prayer mats and even, in one case, a small bucket filled with water.

Women, meanwhile, are obliged to cover their heads with scarves.

On the mountain Friday morning, many of the worshippers wept as they prayed, and carried umbrellas in preparation for the high temperatures later in the day.

Pilgrims gather on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj, outside the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. — Reuters
Pilgrims gather on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj, outside the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. — Reuters

Extreme conditions

“We can tolerate (the heat). We are here for the Haj. The more we tolerate, the more our pilgrimage is accepted,” Laila, a 64-year-old Iraqi pilgrim who gave only her first name, told AFP in Makkah before reaching the mount.

Pilgrims gather on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj, outside the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. — Reuters
Pilgrims gather on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj, outside the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. — Reuters

Saudi officials have touted their preparations for the extreme conditions, highlighting the hundreds of hospital beds allocated for heat stroke patients and the “large number of misting fans” they have provided.

A truck has also been allocated to distribute umbrellas, water bottles and small fans.

Nevertheless, the National Centre for Meteorology, which has set up an office in Mina, is sending warnings to pilgrims on their mobile phones, urging them to avoid outdoor rituals at certain times of the day, especially at noon.

Pilgrims pray on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj. — Reuters
Pilgrims pray on Mount of Mercy at the plain of Arafat during the annual Haj. — Reuters

On Saturday, pilgrims will take part in the “stoning”, the last major ritual of this year’s Haj.

This ritual has in past years led to deadly stampedes, as hundreds of thousands of participants converge on a small space.

After the stoning ritual, pilgrims return to the Grand Mosque in Makkah to perform a final “tawaf” or circling of the Kaaba. Eidul Azha marks the end of Haj.

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government contests Imran Khan and Qureshi’s exoneration in the cipher case

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On Thursday, the federal government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court contesting the exoneration of former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and former Prime Minister Imran Khan in the well-known cipher case.

Citing procedural and jurisdictional issues, the Ministry of Interior has appealed the Islamabad High Court’s (IHC) ruling.

In hearing the cipher case, the High Court allegedly overreached its power, arguing that judges cannot change laws where Parliament has not expressly passed legislation.

Despite receiving government-funded legal representation, the petition emphasized Imran Khan and Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s lack of cooperation during the trial, submitting 65 separate motions and neglecting to cross-examine witnesses.

The petition contended that in order for a retrial to satisfy legal standards, the High Court should have ignored important evidence that was given during the trial. It requests that the appeals contesting the IHC’s June 3 acquittal be given a hearing date by the Supreme Court.

Case history

The cipher issue concerns a supposed diplomatic document that disappeared from Imran Khan’s custody. The cipher allegedly contained threats from the US to remove Khan from office, according to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Shah Mehmood Qureshi and several aides, including Asad Umar, are named in the First Information Report (FIR) submitted by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in accordance with Section 34 of the Pakistan Penal Code and Sections 5 and 9 of the Official Secrets Act.

The then-foreign secretary received a diplomatic cipher from Washington on March 7, 2022, according to the FIR. The lawsuit claims that by manipulating the data for their own benefit, Khan and Qureshi put the safety of the country at risk. It alleges that on March 28, 2022, Khan secretly met at his Bani Gala home and gave his Principal Secretary, Muhammad Azam Khan, instructions to change the content of the cipher to his advantage, jeopardizing national security.

The document asserts that Khan still has custody of the cipher, jeopardizing Pakistan’s encrypted messaging systems and possibly helping foreign forces, which would be detrimental to the nation. A complaint has been filed by the FIA’s Anti-Terrorism Wing against Khan, Qureshi, and other individuals for improper use of state secrets and unapproved possession of the cipher.

Acquittal by the Islamabad High Court

In the cipher case, on June 3, the IHC cleared Khan and Qureshi when Justice Aamir Farooq issued a succinct ruling in their favor. Their sentences were appealed in the case, which has since been a source of political and legal controversy, leading to their acquittal.

This acquittal and the ongoing legal and political struggles surrounding the cipher case are highlighted by the government’s subsequent move to contest it.

With potentially huge ramifications for the parties involved and the larger political scene, the Supreme Court’s decision over whether to hear the appeal will be keenly scrutinized.

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Shahid Khaqan Abbasi urges political stability in order to accelerate economic expansion.

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Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the former prime minister, emphasized on Thursday how important political stability is to Pakistan’s economic development and how the nation cannot prosper without it.

His concern was that export growth had not progressed, and he emphasized that stability in the current climate is vital to draw investments and carry out the necessary reforms.

In his criticism of the tax system, Abbasi brought up the erratic nature of tax laws and the transient nature of the most recent tax slab implementation. Insisting that difficult choices are unavoidable for economic recovery, he emphasized the necessity of designing a tax system that is equitable and does not burden the people.

Furthermore, arguing that the effectiveness of organizations like the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) and National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is essential for economic governance and transparency, Abbasi urged for changes within these and other organizations.

Abbasi, in his discussion of more comprehensive fiscal plans, suggested that the National Finance Commission (NFC) award be reviewed again and that power distribution companies (DISCOs) be decentralized to the provinces.

In order to reduce inefficiencies and corruption at the provincial level, he recommended looking into ways to share the cost of defense spending and decentralize the management of energy resources.

In closing, Abbasi emphasized that Pakistan’s economic trajectory will stay stagnant unless comprehensive changes are implemented immediately. To move the nation towards sustainable progress, he urged policymakers to give stability and structural reforms first priority.

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Through in-app QR payments, Zindigi and SBP streamline transactions involving sacrificial animals.

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With its in-app QR code payment system based on Raast, Zindigi—powered by JS Bank—has elevated the convenience of cashless payments for the procurement of sacrificial animals to a whole new level for Eid ul Adha.

This program uses QR code payments to streamline transactions for sacrificed animals for the general public and traders. It is a component of the State Bank of Pakistan’s Raast quick payment service.

This feature enables users of Zindigi and users of any digital banking apps or wallets to safely and easily make payments at certain cattle markets throughout Pakistan using Zindigi QR. The consumer must scan the QR code of the livestock merchant and pay the transaction amount in order to complete the payment.

In order to further financial inclusion and digital innovation in Pakistan’s developing economy, Zindigi and the State Bank of Pakistan have partnered. Both organizations are committed to improving the efficiency and accessibility of financial services, especially on holidays such as Eid ul Adha, by utilizing the most recent developments in fintech.

One of the most important steps toward promoting financial inclusion and economic empowerment at the local level is the integration of livestock markets into the digital economy. Farmers and retailers may take charge of their financial operations and help realize the larger goal of an inclusive digital Pakistan by adopting digital payments.

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