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India ends decades-old subsidy for Hajj pilgrims

New Delhi (UNA-OIC) � India’s Hindu nationalist government said on Tuesday it is ending decades-long policy of offering discounted airfares to Muslims embarking on the Hajj pilgrimage, AFP reported.

The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has accused its opponents in the Congress party — who introduced the Hajj assistance scheme in the 1970s — of trying to woo Muslim voters through handouts.

Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said the government wants to assist India’s roughly 175 million Muslims without resorting to political appeasement along religious lines.

Development with dignity is what we believe in, he said in announcing the decision to scrap the travel subsidy. He said the cash saved from the scheme would be channeled into economic opportunities and education for Muslims, who make up about 14 percent of India’s 1.25 billion population.

Every year more than 100,000 pilgrims travel from India to the holy sites of Makkah in Saudi Arabia for a spiritual journey that every faithful Muslim strives to make at least once in their lifetime.

Critics have long argued that India, a secular country, should not extend handouts to any religious community for their faith-based celebrations.

India’s top court in 2012 said the scheme should be phased out, and that it contravened a fundamental tenet of Islam — that only those who could afford to make the pilgrimage do so.

But the right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi spends millions for Hindus undertaking the Kailash Mansarovar and Kumbh Mela, a sacred bathing ritual that draws millions of pilgrims over four weeks.

Naqvi said 175,000 Indian Muslims would embark on Hajj this year, a record number, suggesting enthusiasm for the annual pilgrimage would not shrink without the government’s financial assistance.

Muslim leaders in India have also urged the government to abolish the travel subsidy, saying state-run carrier Air India was the biggest beneficiary.

Source: International Islamic News Agency

Paris hosts Sahel defense ministers’ meeting in push for G5 Force

Paris (UNA-OIC) � Paris hosted on Monday a meeting of the five Sahel countries and other countries that support an anti-terrorism strategy in sub-Saharan Africa.

Defense ministers from Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso met with their French counterpart Florence Parly for talks on setting down a concrete timetable for deploying the so-called G5 Sahel force, which carried out its maiden mission in November with the support of France.

The French Defense Ministry said, in a statement, that representatives from the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations also participated in the meeting.

According to AFP, the G5 Sahel force is intended to work alongside France’s 4,000 Barkhane troops, which were deployed to Mali in 2013, and the UN’s 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali.

But the five participating countries � all former French colonies � are among the poorest in the world and their militaries are badly under-equipped. France, an enthusiastic backer of the force, is leading efforts to drum up funding.

So far, 294 million euros ($360 million) has been pledged, led by 100 million euros committed by Saudi Arabia. That sum has enabled the first phase of operations. Another round of funding talks will take place in Brussels on February 23.

In an interview on Monday with the French daily Liberation, Parly said a key goal of the G5 Sahel plan was to ease dependence on French forces, enabling them to pare back their presence in the Sahel.

Source: International Islamic News Agency

Nigeria, neighbors launch joint operation against Boko Haram

Abuja (UNA-OIC) � Four West African states have launched a major offensive against the Boko Haram militant group in Nigeria, the military said on Tuesday, AFP reported.

Soldiers from Nigeria and the neighboring countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger are targeting a Boko Haram faction led by Abubakar Shekau in the Sambisa Forest, and another led by Mamman Nur, on and around Lake Chad. Both locations are in Borno state, northeast Nigeria.

According to the Nigerian military, scores of Boko Haram insurgents have been killed and hundreds of others have been forced to surrender in recent days.

On Tuesday, Army Spokesman Brigadier General Sani Usman said the operation � codenamed “Deep Punch 2” � had been making “tremendous progress”.

Boko Haram has been fighting to establish a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria since 2009. The violence has killed at least 20,000 and displaced more than 2.6 million. In 2015, the four neighbors joined forces with Nigeria’s tiny western neighbor, Benin, to set up a Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to fight Boko Haram insurgents in the Lake Chad region.

Source: Interantional Islamic News Agency

Guatemalan lawyer challenges embassy move to Jerusalem

Guatemala City (UNA-OIC) � A Guatemalan lawyer is challenging his country’s controversial decision to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, arguing it violates international law, AFP reported.

Marco Vinicio Mejia lodged the complaint with the Constitutional Court on Monday, saying the December 24 announcement of the embassy move went against the principles, rules and practices of international law with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Such a change of policy should have been put to a referendum, he argued.

He also said President Jimmy Morales flouted government standards by making the announcement on his Facebook page rather than leaving it to the foreign ministry to make the announcement through official channels.

The notice makes Guatemala the first � and so far only � country to follow US President Donald Trump’s lead in saying its embassy will be relocated from Tel Aviv to the holy city.

Source: Interantional Islamic News Agency