Saudi Arabia has asked Muslims to wait until there is more clarity about the coronavirus pandemic before planning to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage, the Minister for Hajj and Umrah said on state TV on Tuesday.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia suspended the year-round Umrah pilgrimage over fears of the new coronavirus spreading to Islam‘s holiest cities, an unprecedented move that raised uncertainty over the annual Hajj.
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Some 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world usually flock to Mecca and Medina cities for the week-long ritual scheduled to begin in late July. The pilgrimage is also a significant source of income for the kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia is fully ready to serve pilgrims and Umrah seekers,” Minister Mohammed Saleh Benten told the state-run Al-Ekhbariya television.
“But under the current circumstances, as we are talking about the global pandemic… the kingdom is keen to protect the health of Muslims and citizens and so we have asked our brother Muslims in all countries to wait before doing [Hajj] contracts until the situation is clear.”
Besides suspending Umrah pilgrimage, Saudi Arabia has also halted all international passenger flights indefinitely and last week blocked entry and exit to several cities, including Mecca and Medina.
Pilgrimage is big business for Saudi Arabia and the backbone of plans to expand visitor numbers under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman‘s ambitious economic reform agenda.
Cancelling the Hajj would be unprecedented in modern times, but curbing attendance from high-risk areas has happened before, including in recent years during the Ebola outbreak.
To date, the kingdom has reported just over 1,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and 10 deaths. Globally, more than 825,000 people have been infected with over 40,000 deaths recorded.
Disease outbreaks have regularly been a concern surrounding the Hajj, required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life, especially as pilgrims come from all over the world.
The earliest recorded outbreak came in 632 as pilgrims fought off malaria. A cholera outbreak in 1821 killed an estimated 20,000 pilgrims. Another cholera outbreak in 1865 killed 15,000 pilgrims and then spread worldwide.
More recently, Saudi Arabia faced danger from a related coronavirus that caused Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). A faltering response allowed the virus to kill several hundred people and spread across the region.
The kingdom increased its public health measures in 2012 and 2013, though no outbreak occurred.