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Only thousands, not millions, may perform Haj 2020 due to coronavirus: Minister

Filed on June 23, 2020 | Last updated on June 23, 2020 at 03.06 pm
hajj 2020, haj, saudi, coronavirus, covid19, uae will not participate

(AP file)

Saudi decides to bar all non-resident Muslims from travelling to perform the pilgrimage to curb Covid spread.

Saudi Arabia said Tuesday it will allow a drastically scaled-back Haj pilgrimage for around 1,000 pilgrims already present in the kingdom, as it battles a coronavirus surge.

The decision to exclude pilgrims arriving from outside Saudi Arabia, a first in the kingdom's modern history, sparked disappointment among Muslims worldwide even as many accepted it was necessary due to the health risks involved.

Also read: UAE backs decision to hold 'limited Haj', will skip participation

The reduced number is a far cry from the 2.5 million who attended the five-day ritual last year, and it remains unclear what the selection process will be for this year's Haj, scheduled for the end of July.

"The number of pilgrims will be around 1,000, maybe less, maybe a little more," Haj Minister Mohammad Benten told reporters in Riyadh.

"The number won't be in tens or hundreds of thousands" this year, he added.

The pilgrimage will be limited this year to those below 65 years of age and with no chronic illnesses, Health Minister Tawfiq Al Rabiah said.

The pilgrims will be tested for coronavirus before arriving in the holy city of Makkah and required to quarantine at home after the ritual, Rabiah added.

He said Saudi Arabia is capable of ensuring pilgrims' safety this year.

"The health ministry has accumulated experience in the service of pilgrims, and thus has enough human and technical capacities to serve pilgrims and preserve their health," he said.

He added that an integrated hospital at holy sites will be provided, along with a health centre in Arafat in case of emergencies during Haj.

Medical cadres will also accompany pilgrims throughout their journey.

- 'Moment of sorrow' -

The Haj -- a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime -- could be a major source of contagion, as it packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites.

The decision comes as Saudi Arabia grapples with a major spike in infections, which have now risen to more than 164,000 cases -- the highest in the Gulf -- with nearly 1,350 deaths.

"Saudi Arabia has chosen the safest option that allows it to save face within the Muslim world while making sure they are not seen as compromising on public health," Umar Karim, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told AFP.

Saudi Arabia has said the Haj will be open to people of various nationalities already in the kingdom, without specifying how many Saudis will be permitted or what the selection process will be.

But Benten said the government will work with various diplomatic missions in the kingdom to select foreign pilgrims residing in Saudi Arabia who fit the health criteria.

The decision has disappointed Muslim pilgrims around the world who often invest their life savings and endure long waiting lists to make the trip.

"My hopes of going to (Makkah) were so high," said Kamariah Yahya, 68, from Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, which had already barred its citizens from the Haj earlier this month.

"I've been preparing for years. But what can I do? This is Allah's will -- it's destiny."

Shahid Rafique, chairman of a Pakistani hajj tour operators' group, said it was "a moment of sorrow for all the Muslims".

- Religious sanction -

In a statement that gave the decision the cover of religious sanction, the Saudi-based Muslim World League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation said they endorsed the government move for the health and safety of pilgrims, according to state media.

The prestigious Islamic institution Al Azhar in Cairo also welcomed the Saudi move, calling it "wise and based on Islamic jurisprudence".

But the decision still risks annoying hardline Muslims for whom religion trumps health concerns.

Ahmed Al Khoury, a Jordanian resident of Riyadh, shrugged off the coronavirus health warnings, telling AFP he saw "no reason" to cancel or limit the pilgrimage.

Hosting the Haj is a matter of prestige for Saudi rulers, for whom the custodianship of Islam's holiest sites is their most powerful source of political legitimacy.

"The number, God willing, may be in the thousands. We are in the process of reviewing so it could be 1,000 or less, or a little more," Benten said in a virtual press conference

During the press conference, Saudi officials said that no one over the age of 65 will be allowed to perform the Haj and that all pilgrims and those serving pilgrims this year will be quarantined both before and after the pilgrimage.

"This is a very sensitive operation and we are working with experts at the Health Ministry," Benten said, stressing the importance of protecting the lives and health of pilgrims.

Muslims around the world hoping for a once-in-a-lifetime journey to Makkah to perform the Hajj are now going to have to wait until next year, after Saudi Arabia drastically curtailed the pilgrimage due to the pandemic.

The Kingdom said late on Monday that only a very limited number of pilgrims would be allowed to perform the Haj in Makkah from among residents of various nationalities already inside the country.

While the decision to drastically curb this year's Haj was largely expected, it remains unprecedented in Saudi Arabia's nearly 90-year history and effectively bars all Muslims from outside Saudi from travelling there to performing the pilgrimage.

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