Pakistan is to fully privatise Haj operations if a pilot project currently underway succeeds, news reports said on Tuesday.
Religious Affairs Minister Ijazul Haq told the National Assembly that Haj operations would be fully privatised if a scheme to involve more private operators in the process worked successfully.
The minister was quoted as saying by the media that he could not lay down a timeframe for the total privatisation of Haj operations. Haq is the son of former military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq.
In 2005, the government had permitted the pilgrimage through private operators with the aim of gradually phasing out its role in providing ticketing, boarding and lodging facilities to pilgrims.
This followed a directive from Saudi Arabia that countries that send pilgrims should fully privatise Haj operations.
In the first phase, the Pakistan government allocated about one third of pilgrims to private organisers in 2005. This was raised to 60,000 for Haj 2006 and to 77,000 - about 50 per cent of the total pilgrims - for Haj 2006.
Replying to a question, the minister said the authorities were investigating reports that 717 Afghan nationals had performed Haj 2006 on Pakistani passports.
Necessary action would be taken against people found involved in the malpractice after receiving a final report, he said, adding that 14 Haj group organisers were involved in the case.
The minister also rejected the charge that all Haj operators were involved in malpractices and said the bonds of 400 of the 544 Haj operators had been returned.
According to Haq, Saudi Arabia had also asked for the streamlining of Umra operation on the pattern of Haj to prevent illegal immigration into the kingdom.
Two years ago, over 100,000 Pakistanis who went to perform Umra did not come back, but the number came down to 52,000 last year and further dropped to 42,000 this year, the minister said.
Haq said his ministry was in the process of framing a new Umra policy in close consultation with the interior and tourism ministries.