TEHRAN (Iran News) – A Saudi official said Tuesday that the Hajj pilgrimage, which usually draws up to 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world, will only see at the most a few thousand pilgrims next month due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
Saudi Hajj Minister Muhammad Benten said a “small and very limited” number of people — even as low as just 1,000 from inside the kingdom — will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage to ensure social distancing and crowd control amid the global coronavirus outbreak, AP reported.
“The number, God willing, maybe 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.
While the decision to drastically curb this year’s Hajj was largely expected, it remains unprecedented in Saudi Arabia’s nearly 90-year history and effectively bars all Muslims from outside the kingdom from traveling there to performing the pilgrimage.
The Saudi government waited until just five weeks before Hajj to announce its decision. The timing indicates the sensitivity around major decisions concerning Hajj that affect Muslims around the world.
“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.
As part of the curbs, Saudi officials said that no one over the age of 65 will be allowed to perform Hajj and that all pilgrims and those serving the pilgrims this year will be quarantined both before and after the pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia first announced late on Monday that only a very limited number of pilgrims would be allowed to perform Hajj in Mecca from among residents of various nationalities already inside the kingdom.
It’s a blow to those who’ve saved money for years to afford the journey — Hajj is not only a once-in-a-lifetime requirement for all Muslims but also a chance to wipe away past sins and connect with Muslims from all walks of life.
Hajj typically draws 2 million people from around the world, with the rest coming from inside Saudi Arabia. It’s a profound experience, with the faithful standing should-to-shoulder in prayer, often weeping, their palms stretched toward the sky for five intense days of worship around Mecca.
Each country is allocated a specific quota of Hajj visas according to its population of Muslims, with Indonesia having the largest, close to 221,000. In countries like Egypt, Pakistan, and India, securing a slot can require hefty fees, a connection to a local official, or simply years of patience.
Saudi Arabia’s borders have been shut to foreigners since late February in attempts to slow down the spread of the virus. The government suspended the smaller year-round umrah pilgrimage earlier this year, imposed a nearly three-month-long 24-hour curfew in Mecca, shuttered mosques during the holy month of Ramadan and restricted businesses.
Still, the kingdom has one of the highest infection rates in West Asia, with more than 161,000 confirmed cases so far, including 1,307 deaths.
The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most people, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems.
Saudi Arabia said the decision to curtail Hajj was aimed at preserving global public health because of the risks associated with large gatherings. It defended its decision on religious grounds as well, saying that the teachings of Islam require the preservation of human life.
The kingdom has faced smaller epidemics like the MERS virus and had taken precautions by barring pilgrims from African countries stricken by the Ebola virus in recent years.
There have been major disruptions during Hajj in past years, including a deadly stampede and a crane collapse in 2015 that killed more than 2,500 people.
- source : Iran Daily, Irannews