The annual Muslim ritual of Hajj, which usually attracts millions of people from across the Muslim world and beyond, is set to be a low-key event this year as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.
Saudi Arabia announced earlier this month the pilgrimage would be scaled back and will allow only about 1,000 people residing in the kingdom to perform the Hajj this year. No overseas visitors will be allowed.
Some 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world flock annually to the cities of Mecca and Medina for the week-long ritual.
Saudi Arabia announced on July 6 it would hold a “very limited” Hajj this year, as the country is still battling the pandemic.
The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said the decision to curtail the pilgrimage was aimed at preserving global public health because of the risks associated with large gatherings.
Troubled passage: The Road to Hajj
The event will begin on July 29, Saudi authorities said last week.
Who will perform Hajj?
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 last Tuesday, Hajj Minister Mohammad Benten said the government is still in the process of reviewing the number of overall pilgrims allowed, saying there 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 Hajj.
What are the health protocols?
Pilgrims will be tested for the new coronavirus before arriving in the holy city of Mecca and will be required to quarantine at home after the ritual.
Wearing face masks at all times will be mandatory for pilgrims and organisers.
Touching or kissing the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, will be banned during Hajj this year, and a physical distancing space of 1.5 metres (five feet) 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 Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).
Congregational prayers are permitted, but worshippers are required to wear face masks and to maintain physical distancing.
Also, access to holy sites at Mina, Muzdalifah, and Mount Arafat will be limited to those with Hajj permits until August 2.
Has this happened before?
This is the first time in Saudi Arabia’s nearly 90-year history that foreign visitors have been barred from performing Hajj.
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.
What has the reaction been?
The response has been a mix of disappointment, relief and acceptance.
Before the Saudi announcement, Indonesia, Malaysia, Senegal and Singapore had already barred their citizens from performing Hajj this year because of coronavirus concerns.
“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 applied to go on Hajj in 2020, and 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 than it being left to Riyadh.