AGENCIES, Riyadh: Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic around the world, there’s a possibility that this year’s Hajj pilgrimage for millions of muslims that’s scheduled to begin in late July may not happen.
Saudi officials are worried about the outcome and have started sending out advisories to the faithful.
“We’ve asked the world not to rush with regards to Hajj groups until the path of the epidemic becomes clear, keeping in mind the safety of pilgrims and public health as a priority,” Saudi Hajj and Umrah minister Dr Muhammad Salih bin Taher Banten said.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is prepared to secure the safety of all muslims and nationals. That’s why we have requested from all muslims around the world to hold onto signing any agreements (with tour operators) until we have a clear vision,” he added.
In 2019, Mecca hosted over 7 million international pilgrims for umrah in addition to millions from within the kingdom. The number of hajj pilgrims for the same year was over 2 million.
Restrictions on movements by people have tightened in the KSA as it copes with over 1,500 positive coronavirus cases with 10 deaths so far.
Saudi authorities have already locked down three major cities, including Mecca and Medina. It has also barred people from entering or exiting, and imposed a nighttime curfew across the country. Like other countries around the world and in the Middle East, the Kingdom also suspended all inbound and outbound commercial flights.
Each year, up to 2 million Muslims perform the hajj, a physically demanding and often costly pilgrimage that draws the faithful from around the world. The pilgrimage was expected to begin in late July this year.
The current travel restrictions prevent the entry of both foreign pilgrims and Saudi citizens into the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. This has had a direct impact on the umrah pilgrimage, known as the “lesser pilgrimage,” that can be performed at almost any time of the year.
Both the umrah and hajj are important pilgrimages for Muslims, but they differ in many respects.
This is not the first time diseases have impacted pilgrimages. Cholera outbreaks in 1821 and 1865 claimed thousands of lives during hajj. In 2012 and 2013, Saudi authorities discouraged the ill and the elderly to undertake the pilgrimage amid concerns over Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS.