RIYADH • Saudi Arabia will allow around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom to perform the haj this year, a minister said yesterday, after it announced that the pilgrimage would be scaled back due to the coronavirus.
“The number of pilgrims will be around 1,000, maybe less, maybe a little more,” Haj Minister Mohammad Benten told reporters. “The number won’t be in tens or hundreds of thousands” this year.
The pilgrimage, scheduled for the end of next month, will be limited to those aged below 65 and with no chronic illnesses, Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah said.
The pilgrims will be tested for the coronavirus before arriving in the holy city of Mecca and will be required to quarantine at home after the ritual, he added.
Saudi Arabia announced on Monday that it would hold a “very limited” haj this year, as it moves to curb the biggest coronavirus outbreak in the Gulf. It said the ritual will be open to people of various nationalities already in the kingdom.
The decision marks the first time in Saudi Arabia’s modern history that Muslims outside the kingdom have been barred from performing the haj, which last year drew 2.5 million pilgrims.
Mr Benten did not specify how the pilgrims will be selected.
But he 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.
“My hopes of going to (Mecca) were so high,” said Indonesian Kamariah Yahya, 68. “I’ve been preparing for years. But what can I do? This is Allah’s will – it’s destiny.”
Mr Shahid Rafique, chairman of a Pakistani haj tour operators’ group, said it was “a moment of sorrow for all the Muslims, especially for those who were making plans for years and years”, adding: “Professionally, it is a big loss for us, for the private haj organisers and we may not be able to recover… for many years.”
The haj, which typically packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites, could be a major source of contagion.
The number of pilgrims will be around 1,000, maybe less, maybe a little more. The number won’t be in tens or hundreds of thousands (this year).
HAJJ MINISTER MOHAMMAD BENTEN, on Saudi Arabia’s decision to restrict the number of pilgrims this year.
Saudi Arabia is grappling with a spike in infections, which have now risen to more than 161,000 cases with more than 1,300 deaths.
But the move to scale back the five-day event is fraught with political and economic peril and comes after several countries pulled out of the ritual. Singapore is among the countries that have announced that their citizens will defer the haj this year to safeguard the pilgrims’ health.