Saudi to allow around 1,000 pilgrims to perform haj

RIYADH • Saudi Arabia will allow around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom to perform the haj this year, a minister said yesterday, after it announced the ritual would be scaled back due to coronavirus.

“The number of pilgrims will be around 1,000, maybe less, maybe a little more,” Haj Minister Mohammad Benten told reporters. “The number won’t be in tens or hundreds of thousands” this year, he added.

The pilgrimage, scheduled for the end of July, will be limited to those below 65 years of age and with no chronic illnesses, Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah said.

The 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, al-Rabiah added.

Saudi Arabia announced on Monday it would hold a “very limited” haj this year, as it moves to curb the biggest coronavirus outbreak in the Gulf. It said the ritual will be open to people of various nationalities already in the kingdom.

The decision marks the first time in Saudi Arabia’s modern history that Muslims outside the kingdom have been barred from performing the haj, which last year drew 2.5 million pilgrims.

Benten did not specify how the pilgrims will be selected. But he said the government will work with various diplomatic missions in the kingdom to select foreign pilgrims residing in Saudi Arabia who fit the health criteria.

The haj — a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime — typically packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites and could be a major source of contagion.

The decision comes as Saudi Arabia grapples with a major spike in infections, which have now risen to more than 161,000 cases — the highest in the Gulf — with more than 1,300 deaths (at press time).

But the move to scale back the five-day event is fraught with political and economic peril and comes after several Muslim countries pulled out of the ritual that forms one of the main pillars of Islam. — AFP