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Uzbek Cleric Warns 'Pay Your Utility Bills Or No Hajj'
Uzbek media have quoted a senior cleric warning that any would-be pilgrims who fail to pay their utility bills won't be allowed to depart for the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj.
The chief imam in Tashkent, Anvar-qori Tursunov, reportedly said Muslims should pay off their debts before performing the fifth and final pillar of Islam.
Tursunov's comments, at an official gathering on June 28, come amid a campaign by the Uzbek government to seek the payment of a massive backlog of unpaid utility bills.
Authorities in Uzbekistan, like many predominantly Muslim countries, carefully regulate citizens' travels to Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and its environs, which attracts millions of worshipers.
"Even if you owe one som" -- the Uzbek currency, worth around $0.0002 -- "your pilgrimage won't be accepted," Tursunov was quoted as saying at a meeting of the International Press Club in the capital. "So we will not allow them to board the plane, because their hajj won't be accepted anyway."
Muslims are routinely urged to pay off all debts before going to the hajj, but there is no explicit ban preventing someone who has debts from performing the pilgrimage.
Tursunov reportedly urged Uzbeks to pay their electricity, gas, and water bills in time. "There are people who regularly pray and perform the hajj but don't pay for electricity," he said. "This is theft."
The imam made his statements at a televised gathering headlined "Saving Resources, Consumer Responsibilities, And A Culture of Timely Payment."
The Uzbek government has said it is seeking the equivalent of around $1.2 billion in unpaid gas and electricity bills from citizens and businesses.
In May, President Shavkat Mirziyaev ordered prosecutors to set up an enforcement bureau to help pursue the debts.
The government has mobilized local governors and neighborhood committees, as well as banks, educational institutions, police, and tax officers in the effort.
But it's the first time religious leaders in tightly controlled Uzbekistan have publicly joined the campaign.
The hajj takes place in the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, next beginning on August 30.
Every able-bodied Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service
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