CAIRO (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said on Monday it will bar arrivals from abroad to attend the haj this year due to the coronavirus, allowing only a limited number of Saudi citizens and residents to make the pilgrimage with social distancing measures enforced.
The announcement means this will be the first year in modern times that Muslims from around the world have not been allowed to make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which all Muslims aim to perform at least once in a lifetime.
“This decision is taken to ensure Hajj is performed in a safe manner from a public health perspective while observing all preventative measures and the necessary social distancing protocols to protect human beings from the risks associated with this pandemic and in accordance with the teachings of Islam in preserving the lives of human beings,” the ministry that oversees pilgrimages said in a statement.
The number of coronavirus cases in Saudi Arabia has exceeded 160,000, with 1,307 deaths, following a rise in new infections over the past two weeks.
Some 2.5 million pilgrims typically visit the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina for the week-long haj. Official data show Saudi Arabia earns around $12 billion a year from the haj and the lesser, year-round pilgrimage known as umrah.
The kingdom halted international passenger flights in March and asked Muslims in March to put haj plans on hold until further notice. International arrivals for umrah pilgrimages have also been suspended until further notice.
Earlier this month, Malaysia and Indonesia both barred their citizens from travelling to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage, citing fears of the coronavirus.
(Reporting By Samar Ahmed and Marwa Rashad; writing by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Peter Graff)