via Middle East Eye
In sad news for Muslims around the world who were planning to fulfill their duty this year, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) announced the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah is organising a “very limited” Hajj this year. While one of the biggest religious gatherings in the world usually draws over 2 million people every year, the 2020 Hajj will see less or more than 1,000 people who live in the Kingdom making the annual pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. The decision to drastically curb the number was made to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah’s decision was based on several concerns, which were outlined during a statement. The ministry cited the Saudi Ministry of Health as saying that the risks from coronavirus "are expected to grow further, but there is no vaccine available yet for those infected by the disease. Global health security needs to be preserved." Plus, of course, it will be extremely difficult to maintain a safe physical distance in congested religious sites.
The Saudi Minister for Hajj and Umrah asked Muslims "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." pic.twitter.com/5KVfVJ3zUb— About Her (@AboutHerOFCL) April 1, 2020
Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah Mohammed Saleh Bentin said the choice to limit numbers “was taken based on the Kingdom’s principles and past experience in managing Hajj. The main aim is preserving the health and safety of pilgrims in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is a delicate process and we are working with experts at the health ministry, the interior ministry and other authorities to ensure a safe Hajj.”
After months of deliberation over whether to totally cancel Hajj, which is set to begin in late July, practicing Muslims now have an idea of what the watered-down version will entail. Saudis and residents of all nationalities below the age of 65, who don’t have a chronic disease, are eligible to be included in this year’s Hajj, a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime. Diplomatic missions and their offices of pilgrim affairs will be involved in the choice of expat pilgrims.
Thermal cameras have been installed to detect those with fevers at the entrance of the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia, promoting the safety and security of worshippers in times of COVID-19. pic.twitter.com/oPjEINrkze— About Her (@AboutHerOFCL) April 30, 2020
To perform one of the five pillars of Islam, pilgrims will be tested at holy sites and will be subject to self-isolation before and after the pilgrimage. Additionally, medical cadres will accompany them throughout their journey, Health Minister Dr Tawfiq Al-Rabiah said during a press conference. He added an integrated hospital at holy sites will be provided, along with a health centre in Arafat in case of emergencies.
As well as being a letdown to Muslims around the world, who have saved for years to have a once-in-a-lifetime religious experience, the difficult decision to drastically curb numbers is an economic blow to Saudi Arabia. Many East Asian countries had already decided to cancel their delegations to this year’s Hajj before the decision to limit pilgrim numbers was taken. In contrast, the Kingdom, which has suspended the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca, received around 1.8 million pilgrims from abroad last year.
Did you know?
The pilgrimage has been cancelled many times throughout history because of wars and disease, including when Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign in Egypt and Syria disrupted the route to Mecca and outbreaks of cholera and plague. However, this is the first time since the founding of modern Saudi Arabia in 1932 that the Hajj has been so severely affected.