Malaysia lifts quotas on pilgrims to Israel

Removal of restrictions reportedly will allow an unlimited number of Malaysian Christians to visit Israel for up to 21 days at a time.

Malaysia 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad)
Malaysia 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad)
Start firing up the beef rendang and bone up on your Malay: The Malaysians are coming to town.
Well, at least some of them. Or, more precisely, more of them than in the past.
The website of Malaysia’s Star newspaper ran a story Thursday under the headline, “The Government relaxes Israel travel ban.” According to the story, the government – “reflecting the spirit of the season” – announced the lifting of restrictions on pilgrimages to Israel for Malaysians, removing the quota on the number of pilgrims allowed each year and allowing travel to anyone for up to 21 days at a time.
Citing a letter issued by the Prime Minister’s Office to the Christian Federation of Malaysia, the report said that Christians in this predominantly Muslim country can now visit Israel as many times as they want, and travel anywhere in the country they desire.
While the report said that previously pilgrimages to Israel were limited to 700 Malaysians each year, with only 40 from one church and a stay of only up to 10 days at a time, figures from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics indicate that in 2011, 2,900 Malaysian tourists visited the country.
Israel has no diplomatic ties with Malaysia, and Foreign Ministry officials downplayed the possibility that the move had any diplomatic significance, saying it did not presage a thawing in relations with the southeast Asian country.
While Malaysians can visit Israel, Israelis still are unable to obtain a visa to Malaysia.
The Star story quoted the executive secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, Tan Kong Beng, as saying he expected more Christians to apply to go to Jerusalem for religious pilgrimages.
Malaysia’s Christian population stands at some 2.7 million people, out of a population of about 29 million.
He also dismissed local news reports that “the relaxation of the restrictions, contained under an eight-point guideline in the letter, was carried out as part of a ‘concession’ by the government with the general election around the corner.”
There is, however, one catch. According to the report, Tan said, “As far as we understand, the government will not allow us to visit if there is a security situation in Israel, which is fair.”
Israeli tour operators familiar with Malay are undoubtedly saying to themselves, “jangan kuatir” (“don’t worry”).