Saudi Arabia says it will allow only about 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom to perform the Hajj this year, one day after it announced the annual pilgrimage would be scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Some 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world flock annually to the cities of Mecca and Medina for the week-long ritual scheduled to begin in late July. This year, no overseas visitors would be allowed.
Saudi Arabia announced on Monday it would hold a “very limited” Hajj this year, as the country is still battling with the coronavirus pandemic.
The Saudi Ministry of Hajj said the decision to curtail the pilgrimage was aimed at preserving global public health because of the risks associated with large gatherings.
This year’s event is expected to start on July 28.
As one of the five key pillars in Islam, Hajj is a requirement for all physically and financially able Muslims to perform at least once in their lifetime.
This year, the kingdom’s Hajj ministry said the ritual would be open only to individuals of various nationalities residing in Saudi Arabia.
In a virtual news conference on Tuesday, Hajj Minister Mohammad Benten said the government is still in the process of reviewing the number of overall pilgrims allowed, saying they could be “around 1,000, maybe less, maybe a little more”.
“The number won’t be in tens or hundreds of thousands” this year, he added.
Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah said no one over the age of 65 or with chronic illnesses would be allowed to perform the Hajj.
Pilgrims will be tested for coronavirus before arriving in the holy city of Mecca and will be required to quarantine at home after the ritual.
Wearing of face masks at all times will be mandatory for both pilgrims and organisers.
Touching or kissing the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, will be banned during the Hajj this year, and a physical distancing space of a metre and a half between each pilgrim during the rituals including mass prayers and while in the Kaaba circling area will be imposed, according to a statement by the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).
Congregational prayers are permitted, but worshippers are required to wear face masks and maintain physical distancing.
Also, access to holy sites at Mina, Muzdalifah and Mount Arafat will be limited to those with Hajj permits starting Sunday July 19 till August 2.
This is the first time in Saudi Arabia’s nearly 90-year history that foreign visitors have been barred from performing Hajj.
The Hajj has been cancelled because of war and past epidemics throughout history, but not since the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
The response has been a mix of disappointment, relief and acceptance.
“My hopes of going to (the holy Saudi city of Mecca) were so high,” Kamariah Yahya, 68, from Indonesia, told AFP news agency.
“I’ve been preparing for years. But what can I do? This is Allah’s will – it’s destiny.”
Shahadat Hossain Taslim, head of a group representing Bangladeshi Hajj travel agencies, said “many people will be shattered” by the decision, but it was for the best.
“Unlike other countries, the majority of Bangladeshi pilgrims are elderly people, and they are vulnerable to COVID-19,” he said.
Pakistan, which usually sends nearly 180,000 pilgrims, said its diplomats in Saudi Arabia would represent the country during the pilgrimage this year.
In neighbouring India, the minister for minority affairs said more than 200,000 people had applied to go on Hajj in 2020, and that they would receive a full refund of any money deposited for the pilgrimage.
Mohamad Azmi Abdul Hamid, from the charity Malaysian Consultative Council of Islamic Organizations, said Muslim nations should have been allowed to take a “collective decision”, rather then it being left to Riyadh.